A Youth-Led War for Climate Peace: Book Review, Policy Proposal, Grassroots Vision

By Graeme Lee Rowlands

Last fall, policy analyst and activist Seth Klein, brother of Naomi and son of Bonnie and Michael (all well known in their own ways), published A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. Reinvigorated this spring with the launch of his spinoff Climate Emergency Unit, the book is a pragmatic argument for rapid, transformative climate action in the style of a Green New Deal. It’s squarely focused on Canada but American and international readers should also find it relevant. In a society focused on (and often paralyzed by) barriers and problems, A Good War brings a fresh angle to the conversation with its central premise that, actually, we have done this before. We did it during and after World War II. 

Klein has personal and intergenerational roots in peace advocacy and war resistance dating back to conflicts in early 20th century Europe (his grandparents), the Vietnam War (his parents), and nuclear disarmament campaigns of the 1980’s (his younger self). He starts the book by acknowledging personal discomfort with promoting a war-oriented framing, before explaining why he thinks we need it.

“I come to this analogy uneasily,” Klein says, “[yet] I am now convinced that to confront a 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.”

Though initially reluctant, Canada punched far above its weight among allied forces in the years following its 1939 entry into the war. More than one million Canadians served out of a total population of only around 11 million and, on the home front, the government transformed nearly every sector of society and the economy at breakneck speed only to remake it once again after the conflict ended. Over twelve chapters (plus conclusion and epilogue), Klein’s book covers various dimensions of society that were at the core of Canada’s WWII response and are, today, at the core of our ability to act on climate. He delves into then-and-now dynamics surrounding public opinion, inequality, regional differences, corporate adaptability and the role of government, labor and employment, financing, the roles of Indigenous nations, media, youth, and civil society leaders, mistakes and wrongdoings, and perhaps most importantly, the public and political mindset that is needed to accomplish things few thought possible. After reading A Good War, I am convinced and ready to stand with Klein in saying “let’s do it again” – this time to make peace with our planet and forge a more just society.

Overall conclusions aside, the reason I picked this book up in the first place was to get a big-picture perspective on a still-little experiment. Through my work with Wildsight, a conservation, education, and sustainability organization based in southeast British Columbia, I’ve spent the last year launching the Youth Climate Corps – a program to connect young people in need of opportunity with the massive amount of work that needs to be done on climate. Sounds like the Green New Deal, right? As the proposed U.S. Civilian Climate Corps (another early 1900’s remake) gains steam in Congress and the White House with potential to harness billions of dollars and millions of young people, there doesn’t yet appear to be any concrete Canadian analogue. The Youth Climate Corps (YCC) concept does make it into Klein’s book as one of his many astute policy recommendations, and I agree that this idea needs to be scaled up to a wartime level in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere. As Klein says of youth and the climate crisis, “how we confront the largest collective action puzzle of human existence will be the story of their lives. We would do well to fully engage them in the exercise as soon as possible.”

For now, we’re doing our best to build a nationally relevant proof-of-concept in our rural corner of the country. As a scrappy team of non-profit employees and volunteers fighting to win grants and assemble other piecemeal support, we work with what we can get. Our goal is to fill local holes to greenlight or enhance climate projects that are stalled or challenged to reach their full potential. We strive to be the missing puzzle piece.

Last year, our inaugural YCC crew of fourteen people ages 19-29 got paid for four months to complete a variety of projects in the City of Nelson and the surrounding area. After an introductory retreat, they spent the first half of the season working on physical projects with ongoing training and regular debriefs. The crew cleared accumulated forest fuels out of a provincial park to protect ecological values and Nelson’s main water source from wildfire (perhaps the greatest climate risk facing this area). They worked with local farmers to boost food production and test new permaculture design practices. They hauled old, dumped tires off local riverbanks and replaced them with native trees. Once winter arrived, crewmembers shifted their focus to designing and implementing creative projects to engage local leaders and community members.

Our first year was certainly not perfect. One unfulfilled hope, among others, was to get crewmembers working with local building professionals and utilities to provide low-income households with energy efficiency retrofits. Amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic and designing the YCC as we launched it, there just was not enough time to get this piece organized. But, disappointed by this, one of our crewmembers spent the second half of the season doing the research needed to propose a new city program aimed at reducing the carbon emissions embodied in new building construction. Just three months after graduating from the YCC, Alex is now working for the regional district as its new climate action intern and the city is beginning to develop the embodied carbon program he proposed. With the climate emergency, there isn’t time to wait for perfection and it’s stories like this that underscore the value in just starting where you can. 

This year, we’re hoping to add a second crew in a new location, do more good work, and get more people in more places to come on board. If we can quickly launch something like this with relatively little, you can too. Imagine what we could all do together. If you want to see a Youth Climate Corps where you live, let’s talk. You can contact me at graeme@wildsight.ca


Graeme Lee Rowlands (he/him), 25, is the program manager for Wildsight’s Youth Climate Corps program. Born in Honduras and raised in California, he now lives in Golden, British Columbia on the traditional unceded territory of the Ktunaxa and ​Secwépemc peoples.