Onward Climate Soldiers, Marching as to War

(original title "There's a War On Meets Climate Change")
by Lynn McDonald
Toronto Star 7 December 2006

At the recent conference on climate change UN secretary general Kofi Anan compared the threat of climate change with that of conflict and war, arguing that we need to confront greenhouse gases with as much vigour as we would an armed invader.

George Monbiot’s book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning states that nothing less than rationing would work for the worst cause of greenhouse gases--air travel.

What if we took the war-climate change analogy seriously?

Can the prospect of "Earth burning” bring out the same qualities of nobility, heroism and self-sacrifice that war has?

While soldiers have gone off to fight, their families at home have given up their comforts because “there’s a war on.”

Dollar a year” businessmen effectively gave their time to help government run the economy “for the war effort.” Food and gasoline were rationed, yes, even in Canada.

People did all this because they understood that their families, their decent values, their way of life, was at stake.

But climate change has already started to cost lives and livelihoods. There is a real prospect of vast millions of environmental refugees as the ice caps melt and the oceans rise.

In World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not like Labour leader Clement Attlee, but he made him his deputy prime minister in a coalition government. Winning the war was more important than party differences.

Why not now, as we face the end of relatively available fossil fuels, global warming, urban smog, dead oceans, withering forests and deteriorated soil?

Yet we get “frequent flyer points” and are urged to fly more, when flights should, for their enormous carbon emissions, be rationed.

Frequent flier points are really demerit points, or years in purgatory, but not to be spent by us--at least I shall be gone before the worst occurs--but by later peoples, especially in drought-struck areas and low-lying coasts.

Blaming “the politicians” helps nothing, and is not even fair.

The solutions required for the drastic drop in our carbon emissions, given what energy pigs we Canadians are, are too much for the normal political system.

Imagine what would happen to a government that brought in rationing, say for car use and flights. Corporations would go on the attack, indeed deducting their campaign spending as business expenses.

What kind of a coalition government do we need? My proposal is not rhetorical, and is intended for all levels of government.

Perhaps it could be partial, the parties agreeing that on certain issues the usual adversarial rules would apply.

For the core save-the-planet issues new modes of operating would have to be developed. The leaders of the non-governing parties would be sworn into cabinet and treated as part of government, at least for these key matters.

Goals of carbon reduction would be set, and the different sectors of society put to work to figure out how to meet them.

Corporations, schools, universities, cinemas, churches, mosques, apartment blocks, condos, sports facilities--everybody in our various places of work, play and other pursuits would begin to figure out how to tread more lightly on planet Earth, notably to reduce carbon emissions.

The scientific work has been done and solutions from energy efficiency to renewables, municipal planning and building codes are available. But time is short, meaning that delays will only make things worse.

Climate change has begun and cannot be stopped or undone. But we can, if we start now, slow it down and reduce the damage.

Yet to act effectively we need a different political structure, a different economy and general approach to life.

Our political system was created to address the problems of the past, especially poverty. Now we need to confront the effects of excess.

Our Constitution, parliamentary rules and party system, like our corporations, are basically the products of the 19th century, when fossil fuels became cheaply available, and increased production met basic needs. Indeed, when people died of hunger more was better.

Now in Canada and many countries obesity and lack of exercise are the challenge.

A green coalition is desperately needed. Citizens should demand of those seeking their votes a commitment to working co-operatively to making climate change and environmental degradation the great priorities.

In the next federal election voters should ask not just where a party of candidate stands on environmental issues as such, but if they are willing to put party differences aside to make the changes needed.

Climate change as much as war changes everything, and so must we now to deal with it.

Lynn McDonald is professor emerita at the University of Guelph and a former New Democrat MP.