Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 27: The Climate Emergency and Political Action — with Seth Klein

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Maria Cecilia Saba, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Paige Smith, Am Johal, Seth Klein

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Melissa Roach  0:06
You're listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization project recorded out of 312 Main. This podcast is produced by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

Maria Cecilia Saba  0:17
Below the Radar brings forward ideas to encourage meaningful exchanges across communities. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:21
Each episode we interview guests on topics ranging from environmental and social justice, arts, culture, community building and urban issues. This podcast is recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

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Paige Smith  0:39
Hello, listeners. I'm Paige Smith with SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. And thank you for joining us on Below the Radar. In this episode, we sit down with former Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives director Seth Klein to discuss his recent work related to the climate emergency. Our host Am Johal and Seth delve into the upcoming Canadian federal election examining each major party's policies related to climate change. Next the two chat about clients forthcoming book that compares the political actions of Canada during World War Two to the contemporary climate emergency. They question what we can learn from the government's previous actions to both model successes and avoid repeated mistakes.

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Am Johal  1:28
Welcome to Below the Radar. Really excited to have Seth Klein with us today. Seth is of course the longtime executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in BC. Prior to leaving that position to take on new projects and challenges, Seth has been doing a lot of writing lately on climate change. Of course, he has been working on a lot of policy issues over the years. Welcome, Seth. 

Seth Klein  1:53
Hi Am.

Am Johal  1:55
Seth, so we're in the middle of a federal election here in Canada right now, and there's obviously going to be a lot of discussion around climate change, global warming policy related to that in a big national context. I'm wondering if you can help us contextualize where some of these policy discussions are and where you think some of the opportunities might be.

Seth Klein 2:20
Specifically with regard to the climate emergency? 

Am Johal 2:23

Seth Klein 2:24
Well, it's clearly a top of mind issue for the public. It keeps ranking as one of if not the top issues for people. It's the first time we've had a federal election in which the climate has figured so centrally and all of the parties have their plans or their so called plans in response to that, and we are seeing this really interesting grassroots effort to find climate champions. So you've got the call for a Canadian Green New Deal. You've got the whole Our Time youth initiative that's trying to identify climate champions in different ridings. A whole effort to get climate figuring centrally in the debates. So it's going to be interesting. And last month you may have seen, I actually commissioned my own national poll from Abacus on the climate emergency and people's, well first of all the degree to which people see it as an emergency, and their willingness or preparedness to consider truly bold actions. And, you know, my headline takeaway from that poll is that in many respects, the public's actually ahead of where our politics is at on this question 

Am Johal 3:32
In terms of the last four years since the Trudeau government has been in there was, you know, a lot of excitement about a change of government. But I think as pipeline politics, other environmental issues have come forward, there's been a lot of critique of the government as well. So maybe we can begin with you know, how do you characterize the Trudeau government's approach to climate issues from a policy point of view?

Seth Klein 3:59
Well, the term using it and I certainly think it's applicable to the Trudeau Liberals, but not just them, I think it's actually true of the BC NDP as well, is, we live in the time of the new climate denialism. And so what distinguishes that from traditional climate denialism is whereas traditional climate denialism simply denied the reality of human induced climate change. The new climate denialism is practiced by governments and political leaders and the fossil fuel industry claims to accept the reality and indeed, often the urgency of the climate crisis. And yet, it's still practices a politics and a policy agenda that is not aligned with what the science says we have to do. And in particular, in the case of the Federal Liberals, you know, my former colleague at the CCPA Mark Lee calls it the “all the above strategy.” Effectively, it's saying to people, you don't have to choose, you don't have to make hard choices. We can be both climate leaders and continue to expand the extraction and export of fossil fuels, whether it's oil sands or LNG, or you can have it all. You know, and that's a very attractive line. I think much of the public buys that line because why not? And that's that that's the era that we're in now, but I also think it won't last. 

Am Johal 5:23
Yeah, interestingly, we had Amitav Ghosh on Below the Radar a few months back. And he talked about the phenomenon of climate skepticism, as being almost uniquely situated, or proliferating most profoundly in the Anglosphere, in a sense, you know, in the UK and the US and Canada, Australia, other other places, and that that current is sort of part of the culture of these developed nations in a way. And certainly when you visit other places talking about the Trudeau government, my friend Matt and I were in the UK to talk about climate change and people bring up Trudeau's name in the UK, you know, and he's very loved as a progressive reputation. And when you begin to talk about environmental policies of the government, people don't seem aware or make that connection. So in some ways, there's been a kind of branding around Trudeau as being progressive, that has sort of resonated above the reality on the ground. 

Seth Klein 6:30
Absolutely. Well, internationally, he's just such a stark contrast to Trump. And people just gravitate to that, but they're not looking at the context up close the way we are, those of us who reside in Canada. And in terms of your first comment, I think, you know, back to the poll I mentioned, one of the interesting things that emerges in the poll is, for the longest time, the climate threat was seen as, it was abstract. It was a threat in the future somewhere else. And what emerges is increasingly, Canadians see it as here and now. And weather events are a big part of that, extreme weather events have meant that people now get it and feel it and we are reporting that in very high numbers. In the demographics I collected for the poll specifically asked about whether people were first or second generation immigrants to Canada and what the country of origin was if they were. And, you know, partly I wanted to test what I thought was an assumption that recent immigrants sort of care about climate less. And in fact, the opposite emerges. They tended to score higher than the overall national average in terms of their concern about climate. And in particular, in response to my question about whether or not people have personally or someone close to them experienced the impacts of climate change, and I think that's because in in chunks of the world it's it is even more here and now, where people you know with extended family who who've experienced something direct.

Am Johal 8:03
If you were to take a look at the parties, that sort of people with an environmental bent are looking at voting for, let's say, the Green Party, the NDP, perhaps the Federal Liberals, how would you parse out the environmental positions of the parties thus far that have been released?

Seth Klein 8:22
Well, looking at the landscape before us, from right, extreme right to left, I guess you might say so first of all, we have the People's Party, which is like right out of the Trump playbook, flat out denial, traditional denial among their many sins. Then you have the Conservative Party, which really has had to genuflect to some acknowledgement of climate, but it's its mischief. It's a non plan. Mark Jaccard's modeling of their plan is that emissions would actually continue to go up, so they have effectively taken themselves out of any serious consideration. Then you have the Liberals and the NDP and the Greens. The Liberals, we've talked about, I think that's a contradictory approach. I would say both the Green and the NDP plans on climate are very good. They both have a couple of weaknesses, they actually complement each other nicely. You know, the weaknesses of one tend to be a strength of the other. Which is why in the grand scheme of things, I think everyone's blue sky, ideal outcome in this election is a minority outcome, where for me, the ideal outcome would be the NDP and the Greens together holding the balance of power. And you can almost you know, those of us in BC have the experience of a minority government now, you can imagine a negotiation for a federal confidence and supply agreement that pulls the best of everyone's policies and actually starts to look like a Canadian Green New Deal. And that could be extremely exciting. What's so hard for people in part well, in large part because of Trudeau's betrayal on electoral reform is everybody is stuck in this awkward riding level, strategic calculation, where they're looking at, on the one hand, who has the best chance of ensuring the Conservatives don't win if it's a riding that's in play that way, and who, which party or candidate do I feel to be the best climate justice champion. And unfortunately, that may or may not be the same person in any given riding, and so everyone's going to have to make their best effort to figure that out.

Am Johal 10:30
Now, Seth, you've been working on researching and writing a book on climate change related to mobilization and sort of looking back at previous eras, like the lead up to Second World War and following that in terms of the roles that states played in coalescing resources around certain challenges and emergencies and there's been a lot of writers and theorist thinking about mobilizations as well. Christian Parenti has talked about the importance of re-engaging the state and these questions. Locally in town, Geoff Mann's book "Climate Leviathan" raises those questions of the problems of sovereignty that emerged with the climate emergency. 

Seth Klein 11:18
And you and Matt have as well. 

Am Johal 11:19
Yeah. Yeah. And wondering how you've been sort of thinking about this in the Canadian context?

Seth Klein 11:26
Well, so yes, I'm at home writing a book on mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. With the specific twist that it's structured around lessons from World War Two, the last time we mobilized across society in the face of an existential threat. When I set out on this book project, I was really just wanting to focus on the gap between what the science says we have to do and what our politics seems prepared to entertain, and how do you close the gap and always planned on having a chapter about World War Two, specifically about how we quickly re-tool the economy and World War Two, which I have long felt to be this rather hopeful example that tells us we've actually done that before. But the more I dug into that, the more I actually decided and ultimately did decide to structure the whole book around lessons from World War Two. But how is public opinion martialed in World War Two? What does that offer for today? How did we re-tool the economy then? What could that look like today? How did we pay for it then? What could that look like today? What did we do for returning soldiers then? Are there lessons for just transition for energy workers today? What is the role of youth in and now, Indigenous people then and now?

Seth Klein 12:43
And what are the cautionary tales, which is what you're getting at with, with your book and Geoff's book: what were the things that happened in World War Two that caused us shame? Whether it's the internment or the infringement of civil liberties and in particular our response to refugees and the things that we don't want to replicate as we face down this new emergency. But I have to say, you know, I cut my teeth as a teenage activist in the peace movement in the 80s. I'm the last guy you ever would have thought would be writing a book about war and delving into all of this World War Two history, but I have to tell you, I have found it fascinating, and the more I get into it, the more I see these parallels. Like even going back to the election, I take some comfort in the fact that right until the 11th hour, the Mackenzie King government really didn't want to do this, just like our government. They desperately resisted, wanting to be drawn into another European war, and they denied all of these obvious threats, just like people deny the threats today. They wouldn't support the volunteers who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A Canadian Brigade named after Mackenzie King's own grandfather, they didn't support sanctions at the League of Nations against Italy when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Mackenzie King himself had met with Hitler and viewed him as "no serious threat" were his words. So right up into the last minute, all this reticence to do what had to be done. And then even once, so, you know, then in September of 39, the Nazis invade Poland. Two days later, England declares war. A week later, Canada declared war, and then nothing really happened. So historians actually refer to the next nine months or so as the phony war. That's the term they use. Because we had declared war, but there wasn't actual fighting really. And to me, this is the moment where now you have the Federal Liberal government declaring a climate emergency, approving a pipeline the next day. The emergency motion was symbolic, but it didn't mean anything yet. So we are in our phony war, but just like the phony war ended then, it's going to end now, too. We just don't know exactly when and how.

Am Johal 15:16
Yeah. And I think that one of the real challenges around the acceleration of global warming is that for some people, they feel the emergency right now, that the crisis is actually here and now already. And for some people, this is at some point in the in the future, and it lands down differently for people depending on where they are, if you're in the Amazon right now, or if you're in parts of Africa, where it's exacerbating sectarian tensions, which are, you know, having a direct impact on war and these types of pieces. Certainly the wildfires are very good examples here, but there's people like Tim Flannery who have come into town and you know, talks about, you know, when the beginning of the First World War started in 1914, if you were able to project out 35 or 36 years to the end of 1950, and you know, who could have foreseen that China would have gone through a civil war and a communist regime in place, or that the Soviet Union was going to be in the context that they were going to be in, or the partition of India and Pakistan, like a massive, massive changes can happen within a generation. And certainly, when you look at military war planning, which was a big part of Second World War, when you look at the public documents of the military, there isn't a military in the world that doesn't believe in climate change or isn't planning around it. The public documents of the US military, British, Canadian, including naval bases and those types of things that are going to be affected by sea level rise, but also they're planning for the expectation of civil disorder and these types of things. And so with the challenges that the climate emergency brings forward, how do we think through the possibilities of social distance disturbance and the kind of the bigger divides that are likely to come? Of course, people put forward things, various formations of the Green New Deal. But what are the kinds of policy pieces that hold those things together? It gets branded as the Green New Deal, but how it gets talked about in the US or Canada or somewhere else is very different.

Seth Klein 17:29
So first of all, back to your first point. The good news is I think increasingly Canadians do see it as an emergency, and it is an emergency. So the poll that I released last month found that 40% of Canadians believe climate change is an emergency and another 22% think it likely will be in the next few years. So basically got 62% of the public who are rightly there in seeing it as an emergency. Your point about that sort of security threat as understood by the military is an interesting one too that I've been playing with. I actually think in this election, there's a message to the small c conservative voter out there that says, you know, for all of you people who pride yourself on caring about the protection of your children and grandchildren, who care about national security, you know that these are the values on which you pride yourself, these conservative, man-baby leaders today, they don't deserve you. And they're not the same kind of conservative leaders we had in World War Two. The conservative leaders we had in world war two in the face of an existential threat that looked almost insurmountable, much of the time rallied us and said, "We can do this." Not like these guys today who have temper tantrums and say, “Don't make me do it.” You know, for the small c conservative voter, you're better than them. In terms of the Green New Deal piece of it, you know, this is the collective project that's underway in every country and it's not just in the US. I mean, the idea, the core principles of it have caught on fire in Spain and in the UK. And of course here. And that's a process of defining what the Canadian version of that looks like. But the excitement about it, I think operates on a few levels. One is just the ambition of it, right? The original deal was this massive infrastructure and public spending project to just drive the economy out of depression, and provide hundreds of thousands of jobs. And that is welcome, because I think part of what's restricted us in the climate front is that we're locked in neoliberal thinking about what governments can and can't actually do, and we need to be liberated from that. But the other piece of it is that it it turns the whole jobs versus environment dichotomy on its head and it actually seizes the initiative to say not only is this a bold plan to see us meet the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) targets on greenhouse gas reductions, but it's actually going to improve hundreds of thousands of people in an exciting jobs plan. And then it's linked. And it's about linking the climate emergency with the other core challenges of our time around inequality and that basic principle of leaving no one behind, and then wedding it additionally to what is a modern Green New Deal look like that honors and respects Indigenous rights and title, and that takes a different approach to refugees and migration than we did the last time this came up.

Am Johal 20:35
It's interesting that you did start out doing work in the peace movement, because I think that the nuclear question very much in the 20th century was viewed as one of the existential human questions and the way that the climate emergency is right now in terms of the capacity of the human species to exist. So there is a kind of philosophical …

Seth Klein 20:54
It was the existential threat of my childhood. And it was an existential threat. It had to get dealt with. This one's different, though I would say, you know, when I was a kid in the peace movement, the existential threat was sort of will this happen or won't it happen? The climate change one is happening, just a question of degrees.

Am Johal 21:14
And I think there's a durational aspect to it because I think the possibility of nuclear war as it was being presented in the 60s, 70s, and the 80s was something it would be immediate and escalated and that would be that, whereas the climate emergency plays out over a different time frame. And so our relationship to it as a threat is very different.

Seth Klein  21:36
But also, I want to come back to your earlier point, which is that you know, there is this worry, and you and Matt articulated in your book and and Geoff in his that, that wartime scale emergency framework is is threatening to civil liberties and, or in terms of how we react. Now you're right of course to raise the flag about a concern like that, because that is always a possibility. And, you know, Naomi makes the point in her new book, that there is a new wave of sort of right wing climate emergencies stuff that is barbaric and the response to which is to, you know, build walls and pull up the drawbridge and and everyone looks after their own. It's not climate denial, it's seeing the climate but reacting in a very inegalitarian way. The path we will take once we truly recognize the climate emergency could go either way. So all of these things are right to be flagged. They're not a reason not to see it as an emergency. It is an emergency. We just have to go into it eyes wide open about the possible ways in which this unfolds and commit to have it unfold in the best way possible. The I've been drawing a little bit in my writing on Rebecca Solnit, who you guys brought to SFU not that long ago, she has this book called "A Paradise Built in Hell", in which she explores geographically and over time, all of these disasters, natural, you know, war, hurricanes, earthquakes, and how communities respond. And, of course, sometimes it brings out our worst selves, and people are awful. But what she more often finds is these examples of how we respond magnificently, and how it brings out our best selves. And that is ultimately the core leadership challenge right, in the face of an undeniable emergency, the best kind of leadership is to bring out our best selves.

Am Johal  23:53
Yeah, I think one of the challenges of thinking through this is sort of what is done in the name of crisis. What happens in the crisis and, you know, what comes up for me is, you know, in going to Fort McMurray after the fire happened, there was all sorts of wonderful stories about how people treated each other and they evacuated 90,000 people, people let each other in, they had water for each other. It's like any kind of good community story. But then two or three years later, you're back in Fort McMurray and the oil sands are still going. There's expansion being talked about, in a way. And I think one of the sort of challenges of thinking through the setting that I think Naomi Klein did very well in The Shock Doctrine, which is that when you do have these emergencies, like in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, that when the state does intervene, because it is overlaid with it, sort of contemporary neoliberal condition, how it comes in and what it does does matter. And I think obviously the way that you're talking about it as much more the New Deal in the 30's or in terms of the positive aspects of the way the state intervened during a crisis, but how do we parse those things out, but also the mobilizing of narratives can have both of those sides articulated as well, the both very, very positive side, but also the sides that directs hate or blames towards particular communities that are vulnerable.

Seth Klein 25:24
Well, and Naomi's point is also you know, the more we are aware of how things unfold, and are taken advantage of awfully in the past, the more shockwave resistant we are to dealing with it the next time. And we do learn from these examples. So, you know, I've given the example, part of what I'm trying to say in the book is, thinking about this as a war like emergency is a jolt to the status quo. It encourages just a shift in our thinking about how we do this. Mostly what we've seen in Canada so far in the form of climate policy is policy that's like, encouraging people to do this, incentivizing people with a rebate or a subsidy here. So carbon pricing is an example of that. But the thing is in an emergency, we don't make acting, voluntary. And the example I give is, you know, if a community in the interior is facing a forest fire, we don't say to people, we encourage you to leave. We tell people, it's time to go. Now, that said, we have to do that carefully. And so when you think about the forest fires that raged across BC's Interior, both in 2017, and then again in 2018, there was an interesting transition and learning that happened, right? The first summer, and the government declared a state of emergency, ordered the Tŝilhqot’in (Chilcotin) out of their communities, basically told them to buzz off. They weren’t going to be ordered out of their own lands. In the inbetween year, there were negotiations about how this could unfold differently and a new protocol was established. So that in 2018, it unfolded very differently. The Tŝilhqot’in themselves, decided when to declare emergency and how their communities would respond. So I think this is how we learn. And we always learn and improve, I think, like even, you know, some terrible things happened in World War Two under the wartime measures, including the mayor of Montreal was jailed for four years for speaking out against the war and conscription. The war measures act was invoked again by Trudeau senior during the FLQ Crisis. But because of that experience, we actually got the Federal Emergencies Act, which was designed to replace the War Measures Act and try to avoid the kind of worst examples of infringement of civil liberties that have characterized that.

Am Johal 27:53
Seth, where are you taking the book now in terms of where you've gotten to in the writing so far?

Seth Klein 28:01
Well, I'm aiming to finish a manuscript by December. So, you know, it'll be out later next year. That's why with interviews like this, and I'm keen to share some stuff, which is relevant to the federal election. And I think there's lots to share

Am Johal 28:15
Yeah, and people have been writing about similar types of mobilization and other countries related to those sort of wartime metaphors. But who have you been reading that's been influencing your work?

Seth Klein 28:29
You know, it's interesting, there's a number of articles, both popular and academic, that have been written comparing the climate emergency and lessons from World War Two. No one's done it for Canada, certainly not the full book. You know, there was one short journal article some years ago by a prof at Memorial. And like I say, I think the more you delve into this, the more you find interesting examples and you end up digging stuff out from our own history. So, you know, there's lots that's been written, for example about what happened with the shipbuilding industry in British Columbia during the war. And it's an incredible story that again, I think, signals to us what's possible once we actually treat this as an emergency. And just to elaborate on that, way back in the day British Columbia used to have a shipbuilding industry. It all went dormant in the Depression. There were a couple shipyards in North Van doing repairs, that was it. And then we declared war. And in the next four years, just in British Columbia, so mostly in Vancouver, little bit in Prince Rupert, a little bit in Victoria, the province built over 300 ships. 250 of them were large, what were called Liberty Ships, these 10,000 ton Merchant Marine cargo ships. Like we have to import some naval architects from the States and Britain. Everyone else had to be created from scratch, locally hired and trained, a third of them women. The union local of the Vancouver ship builders went from effectively nothing to the single largest union local in the country. It was 30,000 people. But, you know, that, to me, boggles my mind in terms of the scope and speed of what we can do. And even when you think about mobilization, like, you know, when, when people had to enlist, and World War Two, it got off to a slow start, as I was saying earlier, but by war's end, over a million Canadian men and women had enlisted out of a total population then of only 11 and a half million. So basically 1 in 11 like, that's incredible, as a signal of a population across class and, and gender and race that decided something had to be done collectively.

Am Johal 30:56
Interesting, the first time someone ever evoked that kind of a metaphor that you're talking about, was, I had a chance to interview Ralph Keeling, who's the son of Charles David Keeling, who's the scientist at Scripps. And he sort of measures CO2 levels in Mauna Loa in Hawaii. And he taught and I asked him a more political question about what needed to be done. And he said, you know, he's a scientist, he doesn't get into the policy questions, but that we needed something the scale of the Marshall Plan or something like this in order to happen, this was back in 2005, or six or something like that. And to be talking about things in that way during the Bush administration was maybe a little bit too radical for the time.

Seth Klein 31:43
But there's something incredibly hopeful about it,  of what becomes possible, once we start thinking that way.

Am Johal 31:53
Seth, since you've been away from the CCPA, I mean, you were in that role from, what, 1997...

Seth Klein 31:59
22 years. 

Am Johal 32:00
22 years. That's amazing. I think about building up an institution and being involved in policy questions, right, ranging from land use to housing to income inequality. And do you have any sort of thoughts and reflections from that period of your life because you were kind of one of the pillars of the progressive left in the province of BC. I mean, you still are.

Seth Klein 32:24
I was about to say! Well, it hasn't been that long since I left. But you know, first of all, it's just great to watch them now from outside because they're continuing to kick ass and produce amazing stuff. I mean, I feel really proud of the time I spent at the CCPA, mostly for the people we trained and the institutions that we helped to found. The BC Poverty Reduction Coalition was born...

Am Johal 32:55
Who are now in this building!

Seth Klein 32:56
Who are now at this building! But they were born at our boardtable, and the Living Wage for Families campaign, likewise. And the Climate Justice Project. You know, when we started the Climate Justice Project 12, 13 years ago, just to give you a sense of how things change, we actually wondered whether anyone would understand what we meant by the term, because it had no currency at the time. So, you know, these are all signs of things that change. 

Am Johal 33:28
Yeah, so you're involved with SFU's Urban Studies program. Can you talk a little bit about what you're doing there? 

Seth Klein 33:35
Well, I'm not doing much. They very kindly made me an adjunct professor early this year after I left CCPA and have been terrific because I've been able to organize a bunch of my book stuff through there, including some grants that have supported the work and the polling work that I did and so on. That was all done through there and hired one of their excellent students to be my research assistant (Steve Tornes). But mostly I've been reticent to jump too much into things because I'm hiding away writing the book. So I'm not doing any teaching or anything like that.

Am Johal 34:09
When should our listeners expect the book to be out?

Seth Klein 34:13
Well, in the fall of 2020!

Am Johal 34:16
Great, thank you so much for joining us, Seth.

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Paige Smith 34:22
Thanks again to Seth Klein for joining us on this episode of Below the Radar. As always, many thanks to a team that puts this podcast together, including myself, Paige Smith, Rachel Wong, and Fiorella Pinillos. Davis Steele is the composer of our theme music and thank you for listening. We'll catch you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
October 14, 2019

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