I finally bit the bullet and read “A Good War” by Seth Klein. The book describes itself as an exploration of:
how we can align our politics and economy with what the science says we must do to address the climate crisis.
But as I will discuss below, in my opinion the book presents some really interesting historical information while ignoring the details, and frankly the science, of what it will take to fight climate change. The book is written in a compelling style and is meticulously footnoted when discussing the political and economic conditions of the war era; but the high quality of his historical research is juxtaposed with the absolute dearth of reliable referencing when it comes to modern day climate science.
Ultimately the book is not about fighting climate change as an energy/GHG emissions issue and more about fighting the idea of climate change where “climate change” is used as a tool to re-align our political and economic systems to meet the author’s political ideals.
This book started out really badly for me because right from the start it was clear it was not going to rely on any peer-reviewed or reliable science. In his section on the “New Climate Denialism” the author provides the technical basis for his arguments against the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX), the CGL pipeline and the fossil fuel industry in general. This should represent the critical intellectual core of his book and its quality should be consistent with his research into the war years. Instead, his understanding of these projects ends up being based on a handful of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) articles and a few Globe and Mail articles; all of which have been repeatedly debunked in the scientific literature. Let’s summarize:
He relies on a Marc Lee Globe and Mail article to claim that BC LNG has “a GHG profile very similar to coal”. This claim is a claim is demonstrably false and is contradicted by the peer-reviewed research.
His claim that the Trans Mountain will not generate better returns for oil to Asia was from another of his friends J David Hughes. That claim is demonstrably untrue, with more here.
His claim that the Trans Mountain will add “13 to 15 million tonnes” of carbon emissions “equivalent to two million cars” isn’t even referenced, rather it is attributed to Katherine Harrison a “UBC political science professor.” This claim comes from a National Observer article by Dr. Harrison. The problem is the actual reference from which that range is derived said those values would only be valid for new production.
As I have written numerous times, there is no data to support the argument that the TMX will increase Canadian oil production or our carbon emissions. Rather, the information from the energy regulators is clear that the production that will move down the pipeline is not dependent on the pipeline. The only new production in development in Alberta will be completed at a price point where it is still financially viable whether the pipeline is built or not. There is no production in the development queue that has a price point where it is only viable with the completion of the TMX. As such, this production will be completed in the absence of the pipeline. In reality the pipeline will reduce transportation risk and emissions compared to the existing transportation options for that same production. The pipeline is a win for the fight against climate change.
More problematically, throughout the book the author argues we need to eliminate the fossil fuel industry. This demand is simply counter-factual. Fossil fuels are both an energy source and a source of necessary primary materials that form the basis of our modern world. As the International Energy Agency points out petrochemical feedstock accounts for 12% of global oil demand, or between 12-14 million barrels a day. From pharmaceuticals, to petrochemicals, to fertilizer, to synthetic rubber, to carbon fibers to asphalt, fossil fuels are simply not replaceable given our current technologies and societal and ecological expectations.
That 12-14 million barrels a day is expected to increase driven by increasing demand for plastics, fertilizers and other products. This represents 3-4 times Canada’s total oil production and for many of these uses heavy oil is the preferred hydrocarbon source and Canadian heavy oil is among the lowest emission heavy oil on the market. Similarly, his plans for eliminating nitrogen fertilizer would starve out our population. Even in a Net Zero future we will not be eliminating the fossil fuel industry.
As for electricity sources, anyone reading the book would totally forget that nuclear energy exists. A look in the index shows a complete lack of discussion of the topic. Similarly geothermal (which requires fracking by the way) is given short shrift.
Given all the above, I have to laugh at the author’s suggestion that the “CRTC could demand that reporting be scientifically factual” since doing so would cause them to stop his friends from publishing their faulty claims.
Now I am going to do something unexpected. I am going to point out that from a big picture perspective I think the author convinced me that only our government can mobilize the resources needed to achieve the fundamental changes necessary to reach Net Zero. No, we will not be eliminating the fossil fuel industry and yes we will be exporting LNG to Asia because both will help reduce global emissions. But we also need to acknowledge that the private sector alone is not going to achieve our goals. We need a strong government willing to strategically spend a lot of money and write good regulations to get us to Net Zero.
The author’s approach to using the power of government to force the public into converting from fossil fuel-based heating and transportation looks, to me, to be the best way to achieve our Net Zero goals. Similarly, I was convinced that the government leading in renewable and low carbon technologies would be the most efficient and likely most profitable (from a Canadian economy perspective) approach to the problem.
I was confused; however, how a trained Economist, like the author, could completely omit the economic and political limitations to his plans. Canada is not an island. We live in an inter-connected world of trade agreements and supply chains and the book is incredibly light on how his approach would fare once our international trading partners (and multi-national corporations) decided to challenge his preferred approach. During WWII Canada had the benefits of allies working towards the same goals, using the same means. The A Good War, go it alone approach is the exact opposite to that situation in WWII.
Ultimately, the quotation that absolutely typifies this book for me is one he presents from Greta Thunberg. In the quote Greta says:
Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation, while we may not yet know exactly how to build the ceiling.
Any serious thinker would instantly recognize how completely insane that statement is. A building foundation needs to be designed to handle the expected stresses associated with the building design. If you build a foundation without first designing the building you will either need to build a smaller, less effective design to address the limitations in the foundation; or you will need to massively overbuild the foundation wasting time and resources; or you will need to tear out the foundation once completed and lay a new one that reflects the needs of the final design.
Put another way, before you can come up with a solution to a problem you have to be able to diagnose the problem and to do that you need to understand the problem. Throughout this book the author talks about how to fight a problem he is unable to describe. He uses terms like “follow the science” as an alternative to describing what he actually wants done. His entire thesis misses that the fight against climate change isn’t just about carbon or methane, it is about energy and raw materials as well.
Oddly enough, even as the author mangled the energy and climate science he did a pretty reasonable job of convincing me that part of what he wanted accomplished was both possible and even necessary. I suppose that makes the book a partial success from his perspective.
To summarize, in A Good War the author makes it clear he really doesn’t understand our climate challenge from a technical and scientific perspective. To use a metaphor from the book, the author builds his cathedral using a flawed foundation, resulting in a structure unable to support his basic premise. It is worth the read for the historical perspective it provides, but sadly like many recent tomes on climate change, the book has less to do with fighting climate change and more to do with eliminating/defeating Neoliberalism.
Great to have you back.As always a rational ,thoughtful piece of work.
Any idea who the finders of The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives are….?
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Barry Sullivan – I don’t know who funds the CCPA (they indicate ~30% from individuals), but they have been reliably “anti-everything” since I first encountered them in the early nineties.
Blair – you (and your readers) would be interested in “How the World Really Works” by Vaclav Smil. Smil is a professor emeritus at U of Manitoba, and has published numerous scholarly and popular works on energy, development, history, and economics (in some combination). He is relentlessly fact-based, and impressively clear-eyed. The book examines, largely, the need for (fossil) energy in our world, and the prospects for reducing or replacing that need – to simplify, the need is huge; reduction is possible but at a huge cost in the human population, replacement is possible at the margin, but again at a huge cost in quality and quantity of human life. It is a short book – a ten hour read, maybe, and well worth it.
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