An interview with the author, activist and longtime B.C. director of the CCPA

I’m delighted to announce that Seth Klein has agreed to join the Dogwood board. Who is Seth? What makes him tick? And where does he see the greatest opportunities for transformative change in our province? I put those questions to him in an interview a few weeks back. Here’s our full conversation.

KN: You and I have talked about how inspiring it’s been to see the recent wave of youth activism in B.C., both around climate and voting rights. Can you talk about how you got your start in advocacy, and the lessons it left you with?

SK: Yes, this latest wave of youth activism has indeed been inspiring. And I’ve been grateful to see Dogwood’s role in helping to support that work, providing training and an organizational home for the Vote 16 initiative and some of the climate strike leaders.

My own social activism started as a high school student in Montreal in the 1980s, where I became engaged in the peace and disarmament movement near the end of the Cold War. That’s where I cut my political teeth. It was an era when many felt the possibility of a cataclysmic nuclear war was very real. That was the existential threat — a very real one — faced by an earlier generation.

And in that context, a group of Montreal teens including me at age 15 created a youth disarmament group we called SAGE (in English, an acronym for Students Against Global Extermination; and in French, the far more elegant Solidarité Anti-Guerre Étudiante). As I made my way through grades 10, 11 and first-year CEGEP, I would frequently skip school to give presentations in other schools about the dangers of nuclear weapons and what young people could do to turn the tide.

Then in 1986/87, when I was 18, four of us from SAGE, feeling the urgency of the issue, decided to take a year out of our studies and travel the country, speaking in schools and organizing youth peace groups. We spent the summer of 1986 organizing the tour, followed by nine months on the road in an old red station wagon. Looking back, I find it unfathomable that we executed the SAGE Youth Nuclear Disarmament Tour in the days before e-mail or cellphones. But we did.

Like many tours before and since, we started out in St. John’s, Newfoundland (where our stop was hosted by a youth peace group, including a 16-year-old kid named Rick Mercer), and ended the tour in Victoria, B.C. Along the way, we spoke to about 1 in every 20 high school students in the country and started well over 100 school and city-based youth peace groups. Occasionally, I still meet someone politically active today whose social activism started in the wake of the SAGE tour over 30 years ago.

So youth activism is dear to my heart. And it irked me then and ever since that these terrific young activists, who are so knowledgeable and committed to a better world, are precluded from voting. That’s always struck me as a great injustice, and in fact a disservice to us all. Those early days also taught me that young activists can make a real difference, and we are surely seeing that again today.

There is no question that public opinion and the political agenda on climate has shifted over the last two years, and I’m convinced that the global student strikes have been a key factor in that.

I have to add that I think today’s young activists are more politically sophisticated than we were in the 1980s. I marvel at how they understand and integrate issues of climate, inequality, Indigenous rights, workers’ rights, and bring an intersectional lens to their work. And their melding of traditional organizing with new technology is also incredible. So as I watch that it makes me feel hopeful.

KN: Chances are, Dogwood supporters remember you as the director and frequent spokesperson for the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. What are you most proud of in your years at CCPA?

SK: Yeah, I served for 22 years as the founding British Columbia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Canada’s foremost progressive public policy think tank. The CCPA is a non-governmental research institute committed to social, economic and environmental justice. I feel very grateful for my time with the CCPA, and proud of a lot of what we collectively accomplished. So leaving CCPA at the end of 2018 was quite emotional (Read Seth’s farewell letter here.)

I was 28 years old when I was hired to open the CCPA-BC office, joined a few months later by Shannon Daub, who now serves as the B.C. Director. And over time the CCPA-BC grew to 15 people.

I feel tremendous pride in the policy and research contributions the CCPA-BC has made, and in particular, for all the amazing people and public intellectuals we’ve helped to train. So many talented people who have given a lot to social movements got their start at the CCPA. Dozens of students were trained at the CCPA-BC. We also co-founded Next Up, the leadership program for young people committed to social and environmental change, whose alumni are now in leadership roles all over.

We worked hard at the CCPA-BC to build an organization with a strong reputation as a highly credible, independent think tank, committed to doing research in the service of our social movement partners. The research work is values-based, but rigorous and peer-reviewed. And that’s why so many people rely on CCPA — they can trust that the work is reliable and solid, yet grounded in a shared commitment to a more just world.

I’m proud that the CCPA-BC was one of the first organizations to explore the connections between climate and inequality.

The CCPA-BC has co-hosted two major multi-year research alliances that have produced a huge body of knowledge on that broad subject: the Climate Justice Project (led by Marc Lee), which since 2007 has produced dozens of reports that map out how our society can become carbon-zero in a manner that also reduces inequality, includes just transition for workers and enhances social justice; and the Corporate Mapping Project (led by Shannon Daub and Bill Carroll), launched in 2015, which seeks to investigate and document the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada.

And I’m particularly proud of the role the CCPA-BC has played building coalitions—helping progressives find common cause across differences. There are many examples of this: we founded the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition; we co-founded the Living Wage for Families campaign; we brought academics and key organizations together in the Climate Justice Project and the Corporate Mapping Project. That alliance-building work is so important, because no group wins important change alone. Each time we have had a policy win, it was always won in cooperation with others.

KN: Why did you agree to join the board at Dogwood?

SK: I’ve followed and been impressed with Dogwood’s work for many years. In recent years, I’ve felt a lot of gratitude for Dogwood’s role fighting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects – I think Dogwood has been an important player in that space. I appreciate how Dogwood has connected the climate fight with the defence of Indigenous rights and title, and sought to act in solidarity with Indigenous communities.

Like the CCPA, Dogwood strikes me as an organization that stays true to its principles, no matter who is in power – it doesn’t compromise for the sake of gaining a seat at the table.

I like how, while many NGOs today are very professionalized, Dogwood remains very grassroots, and practices a politics that still relies on mobilization and people-power – I feel like a lot of groups have forgotten how to do that. I like Dogwood’s theory of change, and the language and values that underlie Dogwood’s work.

As noted earlier, I am particularly appreciative of the role Dogwood has played in supporting young climate activists and the emerging movement to lower the voting age.

So for all these reasons, when I was approached to join the board, I said yes.

KN: You have a book coming out that I’m excited to read, called A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. You were writing this before COVID-19, but it seems to me even more urgent and timely as governments around the world grapple with multiple layers of crisis. How do you think Canada should tackle both the pandemic and climate breakdown?

SK: Well, I’m excited for you and many others in the Dogwood community to read it! I think the book makes a helpful contribution to the climate emergency moment we all face. It comes out in September, and you’re in it Kai!

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 GHG emissions have only flatlined since the year 2000 – they are not going down. 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. Nor is it because I think we need a metaphor about sacrifice, and certainly not because I think there is anything glorious or appealing 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.

But life is full of curve-balls. Just as my book was going into production, the world was struck by the pandemic crisis, which has pushed the climate emergency, for now at least, off the front burner. So I quickly added an epilogue to the book about the COVID crisis.

I chose to frame my book around Canada’s Second World War experience because I sought an historic reminder of how quickly we have transformed society and our economy in the past. But, of course, now we have all been experiencing such evidence in real time. Suddenly, everyone is drawing comparisons to the Second World War, and our leaders have been immersed in a crash course in wartime economic planning as they seek guidance for confronting the pandemic.

Similarities abound between our wartime experience and the current pandemic response. In contrast to our lackadaisical climate plans, today we are seeing what an emergency response looks and feels like, particularly when the emergency catches us off-guard.

The status quo is suspended. Government leaders and public officials hold daily emergency briefings. Emergency Acts are invoked. Federal and provincial cabinets form emergency response committees of key ministers (like the War Committee that oversaw Canada’s Second World War mobilization). Resources and personnel are redeployed. Manufacturing capacity is requisitioned to produce essential products (then it was munitions, while today it is protective medical gear, hand sanitizer and ventilators). Governments assume the power to direct necessary supply chains. Public facilities are repurposed as needed (such as community centres turned into makeshift clinics and service centres). We honour the front-line people making extraordinary sacrifices.

I think the evolving governmental response to the pandemic in Canada has been, by and large, impressive and bold. Our governments have shown themselves willing and able to pivot to emergency mode with laudable speed and flexibility. We have seen a level of cooperation across confederation and across partisan lines that is unprecedented in modern times.

As in the war, our governments at every level have appropriately dispensed with the fetishization of balanced budgets and are spending what is required – deficits be damned. Total direct spending on the crisis by the federal government is currently approaching $250 billion. The design of the emergency relief programs is imperfect, but the federal government has not allowed such details to derail swift action. That’s great.

In light of the COVID crisis, not only do we newly value and appreciate the role of government and public services, but we have also come to understand that the vulnerable must be urgently looked after, or we are all more vulnerable to this invisible foe. That’s true for the climate crisis as well.

Overall, though, the spending now underway merely shows what we could have done in response to the climate emergency, poverty and homelessness all along. All of this represents proof positive that, given the will, we are indeed capable of rapidly rising to the climate challenge. The curse of the climate crisis, it turns out, is that, in comparison to the pandemic and the war, it moves is slow motion, and has thus failed to sufficiently galvanize us – so far anyway.

There is a key difference between the wartime and climate crises, on the one hand, and the coronavirus pandemic on the other. The war effort and climate mobilization demand that we get out and build what’s required for the transition, while the pandemic has obliged us to stay home. Consequently, whereas the war and climate action were and can be a boost to the economy and job creation, the COVID crisis represents a massive hit to both, as people are prevented from working. The fact that climate action is a positive on these fronts, however, is welcome news; just as the Second World War ended the Great Depression, as we rebuild from this pandemic, an ambitious climate plan with massive green infrastructure spending – the Green New Deal – can be just what the doctor ordered.

The vital and urgent challenge now is to ensure that, as we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, we use this experience and the opening it creates to catapult our societies into the post-carbon economy.

We must not return to yesterday’s normal, with all its inequalities and fossil fuel reliance. This pandemic has the potential to dramatically jump-start our efforts to decarbonize – to accomplish massive emission reductions in a few short years. But this is not assured. On the contrary, we are certain to see a great battle over what the return to post-COVID “normal” looks like.

The new climate denialists in industry and government are already seeking huge public bailouts for the fossil fuel sector, airlines, traditional auto manufacturing and more. Will we seek to quickly restore the main industries of before, or will we embrace this historic moment and the massive government expenditures any rebuilding efforts will inevitably require to permanently re-make our economies?

Another vital difference between the COVID and climate emergencies is the degree to which they catch us unprepared. Our governments have not yet seen fit to adopt a wartime-scale response that preemptively tackles the climate crisis. We mobilize to put fires out, but not to prevent them. But climate change-induced disasters and disruptions in growing frequency and severity are coming. We are going to be pressed into service one way or another. The only question is whether we will be mobilized exclusively in moments of disaster not of our choosing – as we have been in this pandemic – or can we assume agency and mobilize preemptively on our own terms?

The COVID pandemic has reaffirmed the role and value of ambitious government action. It has reminded us of our mutual reliance. Social solidarity and support for public services is likely at a generational high. There is a new spirit of national cooperation in the land upon which we must now capitalize. The public emerges from the COVID crisis with new respect for scientists and scientific evidence. We collectively now understand that the more our economy is localized, the more resilient we are to disruptions. The economy now urgently requires public investment to rebuild from the pandemic. Combine all these new realities, and the time has never been more opportune for true climate emergency mobilization.