In May 2019, the The Guardian made an important decision when it decided to stop using the neutral terms “climate change” and “global warming” and start using terms that more accurately reflect what’s going on—“climate emergency” and “climate crisis.”
The move prompted reflection inside Canada’s own CBC. After a careful rethink of its policy, Paul Hambleton, director of journalistic standards at the broadcaster, announced that these more disturbing phrases to describe the climate predicament could “sometimes” be used. But he warned that they had “the whiff of advocacy” and Canada’s public broadcaster had to avoid “journalism that crosses into advocacy.”
So, while the world continues to fast-forward on a path to catastrophe for humankind—and there is really only about a decade left to change course—the CBC blithely insists on maintaining some silly notion of journalistic objectivity—as if it were dealing with a topic for which there are competing biases that must be weighed.
Let’s hear the pros and cons of human extinction.
This is a perfect example of what Seth Klein calls “the new climate denialism,” in his powerful and important new book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency.
Under the old climate denialism political leaders and business commentators simply denied the scientific facts of global warming.
Under the new denialism, political leaders and business types claim they understand and accept the science. But they remain in denial when it comes to action, imposing measures that are far short of what’s needed if we are actually going to deal with the looming disaster.
And so, at a time when half-baked measures are accepted as progress, our public broadcaster, fearful of emitting the slightest whiff of advocacy, avoids using words that accurately reflect what’s going on but risk offending the fossil fuel industry and its political allies.
This is, of course, an illustration of how badly the CBC has failed to be an independent, public-interest media source rather than merely a copy-cat version of our privately-owned media with its fawning deference to the corporate world.
It also illustrates how the new denialism shapes the mainstream narrative, failing to properly inform us—to alarm us, for God’s sake—about how much danger we are truly in.
Klein’s book is an insightful exposé of the new climate denialism; it shows the true state of the emergency and Canada’s deeply inadequate response to it, and presents an inspiring and credible vision of what could be done.
Its central premise—that Canada should mobilize to fight the climate crisis just as it did to fight the Second World War—is not original, but Klein develops the case very effectively with lots of fascinating detail about Canada’s wartime experience and the many close parallels to today’s situation.
For instance, he notes that at the outset of World War II, Canadians were not gung-ho for war, indeed they were wary of becoming involved. But Prime Minister Mackenzie King didn’t let that discourage him from taking up the cause of fighting Hitler’s Germany. Instead, the King government launched a massive communications and mobilization effort to persuade Canadians of the vital importance of the task.
“They took the public where they needed to go,” Klein writes.
He compares this to the way today’s politicians—even ones who seem genuinely concerned about the climate crisis—are strangely hesitant and reluctant to push for the radical action needed to eliminate fossil fuels, apparently out of fear that the public isn’t ready.
Another factor behind this timidity is the reluctance of today’s leaders to confront Big Oil and its bombastic political supporters, particularly in Alberta. This fossil fuel lobby makes the argument that, by itself, Canada has little power to reduce global emissions, and, since some other countries aren’t doing their share, why should we compromise our economic prosperity to do our part?
In fact, as Klein shows, similar arguments applied during the war: fighting Nazism required a worldwide effort, and Canada was only one small participant, unable to achieve much on its own. Even the United States wasn’t involved until 1942. The threat no doubt felt quite removed from Canadian shores.
But that didn’t stop Canada’s leaders from launching a massive mobilization that produced, virtually from scratch, 800,000 military transport vehicles, 50,000 tanks and 16,000 warplanes. It also mobilized labour. By the end of the war, a total of 1.1 million Canadians had enlisted in military service—out of a population of just 11.5 million, with 44,000 of them making the ultimate sacrifice.
Compared to the risks those soldiers were asked to take, today’s risks—where no one is being asked to put their life in jeopardy—seem pretty minimal. So what if we all end up driving electric rather than gas-propelled cars, live in properly insulated homes and derive our energy from solar and wind power?
And Klein argues that a full-fledged commitment to a Green New Deal could create millions of good jobs and could actually improve Canadian well-being, particularly if coupled with actions aimed at making the country more equal and inclusive, as it was during the war.
Besides, our timid political leaders may well be underestimating how far the Canadian public has already come on its own. An Abacus Data poll commissioned by Klein found that between 67 and 84 percent of respondents were willing to go along with a list of bold measures to deal with the climate crisis.
Imagine if the government actively tried to draw Canadians into a massive effort to confront the emergency!
Klein punctures any illusion, fostered by the new denialism, that we are making good progress towards dealing with the crisis.
Justin Trudeau has gone to great lengths to sell himself and his government as climate champions. And, of course, compared to the Conservatives, the Liberals look good. But compared to what science says is needed—the only yardstick that matters—they’re falling dramatically short.
“What we have been doing is simply not working. We have run out the clock with distracting debates about incremental changes…” writes Klein. “With the exception of a small downturn in emissions during the 2008-2009 recession, we have made almost no progress, and frequently have slipped backward.”
He notes that the Trudeau government put great effort and political capital into achieving a nationwide carbon tax, albeit at a low level. But, while such a tax is a good idea, it’s only one tool needed, and not the most important one. Relying on the marketplace to solve the climate crisis just isn’t enough.
Indeed, the real problem is that Canada is a major exporter of fossil fuels—the sixth largest oil producer and fourth largest gas producer, and there are plans to increase production of both through to the year 2040.
Any gains made by the carbon tax will be undermined by the government’s negligent $12 billion investment in completing the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which will create the infrastructure for future decades of damaging fossil fuel extraction.
If we are to have even a 50 percent chance of staying below the target 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, with Canada doing its fair share of emissions reduction, then fully 86 percent of Canada’s proven fossil fuel reserves need to remain in the ground—making the TransMountain investment a dangerous and incoherent policy.
Klein has produced a compelling call to arms, reminding us that the mobilization needed today is well within our capabilities, that we accomplished something much more difficult through our collective efforts during World War II, and that Canadians are ready for today’s battle.
What’s lacking is political leadership.
Instead, our leaders—even those who fashion themselves climate warriors—are fundamentally afraid to stand up to Big Oil and its political backers. Indeed, to our great peril, they’re caught up, as Klein notes, in a foolhardy quest to win “peace in our time.”
Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her most recent book is The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth.