Should we call climate change an emergency?

Simon Kerr
Aug 26 · 14 min read

Yes, but there are potentially troubling consequences that we must not ignore.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of forest fires

Introduction

The term Climate Emergency has appeared in public discourse with remarkable speed and is now increasingly the language of not just the climate movement, but also a growing number of cities, states, parliaments and Universities. Yet it is not without its critics who argue the language of emergency may have unintended consequences by providing license for potentially dangerous interventions in the climate system, such as solar geoengineering. This article briefly reviews where the term came from, its current influence, risks and prospects.

None of what follows reduces the urgency and seriousness of the climate crisis. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their most blunt report to date, stating that to stay under 1.5ºC requires the world economies to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Some researchers have since argued that climate change is happening faster than the IPCC has anticipated, potentially breaching the 1.5ºC temperature threshold by 2030. With still rising emissions, and bereft of a politically viable plan to date, current projections point to a 3ºC plus world before the end of this century, with the high risk of crossing climate thresholds from which we may not be able to escape. This is the risk, but not yet the unavoidable future; the world still has capacity to ensure a less dangerous future climate.

Origins of the ‘Climate Emergency’

There are at least two distinctive views on the language of emergency, one rooted in concerns that incremental change is too slow and therefore the language around climate change had to change. The second is the assessment by some scholars that dangerous geoengineering technologies may be implemented to reduce global warming in the event emergency action is deemed necessary.

The first and more publicly recognised view originates with David Spratt and Philip Sutton, the Australian authors of Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action. Launched in 2008 by the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser at Parliament House in Melbourne, it laid out a plan to respond to the climate problem. The Governor, in his launch address, said ‘there is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest problem confronting mankind at this time and that it has reached the level of a state of emergency’.

The term was first used in the USA as early as 2011 but has taken hold in the climate movement more recently through Climate Mobilisation, an environmental advocacy group founded by clinical psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon to address climate denial. From this came the 2015 campaign for a World War II style mobilisation to address the climate emergency.

In 2016 Sutton drafted a ‘Climate Emergency (Restructuring & Mobilisation) Act’ to provide some ideas about what a climate emergency response could look like. That same year in Australia, the Climate Emergency Declaration campaign was launched with a petition calling on the Australian Parliament to declare a climate emergency and to mobilise resources to restore a safe climate.

In 2016, Darebin City Council in Melbourne, Australia, became the first city in the world to declare a climate emergency. They have since launched their Climate Emergency Plan 2017–2022, acknowledging the seriousness of the climate crisis and a commitment to restore a safe climate by adopting ‘an emergency mode of action that can enable the restructuring of the physical economy at the necessary scale and speed’.

As of 7 August 2019, 935 governments (city, state and national) in 18 counties have publicly declared a climate emergency (see full list). In Australia, 33 cities and the Australian Capital Territory have done so.

The language of emergency was taken up by Extinction Rebellion, the activist movement formed in October 2018. Of their three main demands, the first is to ‘tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency’. They have high level support including the former Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Higher education institutions are also increasing their public responses to climate change, arguing they can no longer continue to treat climate change as business-as-usual. In a joint letter delivered to the United Nations in August 2019, over 7,000 colleges, universities, technical schools and community colleges from around the world declared a climate emergency.

What is meant by ‘Emergency’?

The idea of a Climate Emergency is now being widely employed among activist groups as well as within politics. But there are different meanings attributed to the language of emergency, and there is not universal agreement about the implications of using this language.

I asked David Spratt, one of the originators of the Climate Emergency narrative, what he meant by the term. He told me that:

‘Emergency’ … comes from the emergencies we know from experience, such as bushfires etc, where you put aside ‘business as usual’ and devote whatever resources are necessary to solve the problem.

In their ‘Understanding Climate Emergency and Local Government’ Breakthrough state the purpose of a climate emergency declaration is to accelerate sustained and meaningful action by all levels of government. The goal is to provide maximum protection for the local community and for people, civilisation and species globally and they use the term ‘emergency’ to ‘signal the need to go beyond reform-as-usual’.

This language has also entered into mainstream politics. Mark Butler, Shadow Environment Minister in the Australian Labor Party, declared that:

The world is facing a climate emergency. Our country is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Government action and policy matters. … We know that this is in the national interest, that this is in our children’s interest, and that this is in our grandchildren’s interest. (4 December 2018)

The Australian Greens have also just launched a campaign for the Australian Parliament to declare a climate emergency. They want climate change to be at the centre of government policy and planning decisions and are declaring that business-as-usual is over.

In 2019 the United Kingdom, Welsh, Scottish and Irish parliaments have declared there is a climate emergency. The Scottish Parliament Climate Change Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham began her announcement with these words: ‘There is a global climate emergency. The evidence is irrefutable. The science is clear. And people have been clear: they expect action.’ She explained what an emergency entails:

An emergency needs a systematic response that is appropriate to the scale of the challenge and not just a knee-jerk, piecemeal reaction. All Cabinet Secretaries are looking across the full range of policy areas to identify areas where we can go further, faster.

The Irish Dáil Éireann (the Lower House of Parliament) has also declared that they face a climate emergency. The Irish Prime Minister later noted that while a declaration itself is not a plan, it is ‘highly symbolic’ and it was now up to all parties to follow through with actions.

In these examples, climate change is being reframed from something that could be dealt with incrementally (business as usual) to something that is an existential crisis and can no longer be ignored. Other terms, such as climate disruption, climate breakdown and climate action, are typically used in the action plans, with little reference to an emergency. But the language of emergency is having an agenda setting function. This appears to be a successful political strategy. After widespread protests in April 2019, protesters met with London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Within days, the United Kingdom Parliament declared a climate emergency.

The language of emergency also has a psychological function. Margaret Klein Salamon, the founder of The Climate Mobilisation, a US based ‘innovation lab’, refers to the idea that living in an emergency mode focuses attention on what matters. She argues an emergency mode is different from simply inducing panic, which is more likely to lead to poor decision making and denial:

Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. This mode of human functioning — markedly different from “normal” functioning — is characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency (emphasis in original)

In Salamon’s view, naming climate change as an emergency enables psychological resources, imagination and energy to be re-directed to the emergency. If there is no emergency and no urgent need to act, we risk ignoring the problem and prioritising more immediate concerns. This view is consistent with a large body of research on why humans have trouble with future and less immediate threats. See George Marshall for a useful summary.

These ways of using the language of emergency are primarily about jolting people, communities and institutions into action. The embedded assumption is that we already have tools needed to respond to the climate crisis. So, in the words of Lord Stern, ‘Why are we still waiting? Stern published his book with that title in 2015, nine years after his influential report into climate change in the United Kingdom. Climate change was an urgent issue then. Now, it seems, it is an emergency.

Emergency, Science and Geoengineering

I now turn to another set of climate emergency discussions that emerge from science, technology and, in particular, from engineering. For some decades scientists have been seeking to understand the extent of the climate problem and potential solutions. Reducing global emissions has proven politically fraught. Significant attention has been given to other ways to lower the temperature of the heating planet. While much of this work is speculative, the closer we get to some sort of tipping point, the more discussion turns to geoengineering solutions, such as solar-radiation management.

Solar radiation management proposes an engineering response to the warming climate. It is now widely accepted that the planet can actually cool slightly after very large volcanic eruptions. The 1991 eruption on Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines lowered average global temperatures about 1ºC because of ash and other pollutants that reflected more sunlight back to space. This raises the possibility of lowering earth’s temperature by purposively engineering such effects. This approach is highly controversial because of the risks and uncertainties associated with them. Jeremy Baskin’s recent (2019) book, Geoengineering, the Anthropocene and the End of Nature gives a useful guide to these risks and how likely they are to be taken up. He suggests that although there is research into solar radiation management, it is still marginalised as a solution to climate change.

Nevertheless, there are risks that such technologies may well be seen as a ‘solution’ to a climate emergency. How is this type of emergency defined? In a 2009 significant review of engineering solutions, the authors defined climate emergencies as:

‘ … those circumstances where severe consequences of climate change occur too rapidly to be significantly averted by even immediate mitigation efforts. … While offering no predictions about the likelihood of either climate emergencies or gradual climate change (or anything in between), we recognize that there is now a non-negligible possibility of a climate emergency in one form or other. Serious consideration of potential responses to such an eventuality is therefore important and reasonable. (pp 1–2)

Here, a climate emergency is a specific response to some sort of potentially catastrophic tipping point where there is widespread concern about the consequences. It is almost inevitably a topdown technological response from Government or some other authority. Conversely, it may also illicit a response from a rogue actor (private or state) without any international or democratic controls.

Solar radiation management (blocking the sun) has been proposed as a way to lower the planet’s temperature.

Unintended Consequences of Declaring a Climate Emergency

Some scholars have this type of situation in mind when expressing concerns about using the language of emergency. While large scale engineering interventions are currently unlikely (see Baskin, 2019 above), nevertheless the language of the emergency may well add weight to a call for technical intervention in the climate.

Scott Stephens, presenting on the ABC The Minefield in June 2019 raised concerns around the language of emergency, ‘not because there isn’t an emergency … but the problem reaches such global dimensions that the only avenues for response are of such large scale’ (technocratic or large scale market fixes). Stephens was worried that this slippage into technology and markets could result in climate being viewed in terms of ‘red lights’ and ‘alarms’, increasingly removed from the daily lives of people, rather then seeing it as an alternative way of life that we must now live with. In other words, it reduces our capacity to adapt to this new world we now inhabit.

Criticism of the emergency language has also been expressed in a recently published Nature Climate Change article, ‘Why setting a climate deadline is dangerous’. The authors are concerned about the ‘political opportunism’ of declaring a climate emergency. They argue that the timetable and goals around the 1.5ºC and 2ºC lock decision makers into targets that are artificial. For example, the widely held belief that we have only 12 years (now 11) to stop climate change does two things. First, it provides a deadline that is only one scenario in the modelling, and placing too much emphasis on exact dates and emissions reduction numbers does not acknowledge the still large band of uncertainly in climate sensitivity (how fast the climate warms for a certain amount of CO2). The 2018 IPCC report, from which this idea is derived, provides a range of scenarios, which 50% reduction in emission by 2030 is only one possible pathway. This is not to undermine the value of these numbers as a guide, as the authors do ‘acknowledge this translation is understandable’. Nevertheless, having a ‘countdown’ to a supposed tipping point may well generate increased panic and therefore political willingness to try a large scale technology solution, with its massive risks.

Mike Hulme, an author on the above paper, puts the argument bluntly in a commentary titled, Against Climate Emergency:

Declaring a climate emergency invokes a state of exception that carries many inherent risks: the suspension of normal governance, the use of coercive rhetoric, calls for ‘desperate measures’, shallow thinking and deliberation, and even militarization. To declare an emergency becomes an act of high moral and political significance, as it replaces the framework of ordinary politics with one of extraordinary politics.

The concerns about geoengineering are not ill founded. As the authors of a recent article on the speed of global warming note, ‘The excessive reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’ [that sequester CO2] in the IPCC special report shows that it becomes harder to envision realistic policies the closer the world gets to such limits’. The widespread call to declare a climate emergency increases the likelihood of dangerous ‘solutions’. But while a risk, such solutions do not currently have widespread support. As Raymond Pierrehumbert, an author on the 2015 National Science Council’s report on solar engineering put it:

The nearly two years of reading and animated discussion that went into this study have convinced me more than ever that the idea of “fixing” the climate by hacking the Earth’s reflection of sunlight is wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad. (Cited in Baskin pg. 94)

Climate, Language and Action

There is now much evidence that climate risks are increasing and that climate sensitivity may have been significantly underestimated. Global warming will happen faster than we think. The IPCC has argued that we must now seek rapid action on emissions reductions and adaptation preparation. The fact that planetary temperatures and emissions are still rising and the lack of serious planning to remedy this is a reason that climate emergency declarations have been made (a trend that shows no sign of disappearing). Responding to the impacts of this rapidly unfolding climate crisis will take time because it involves considerable planning, shifting of resources, technological capacity and trained workforces to make such transitions.

As Hulme and others have argued, language matters. Our responses to serious climate change are not just shaped by science, but are also cultural frames which shape the way we understand the issues and the types of solutions we envisage. An obvious example is the divide in the USA between Republicans who want free-market solutions with minimal government regulation and Democrats who argue for Government policy settings, infrastructure investment and regulation. These are cultural issues, and because it is culture, language matters.

In response, Hulme calls for climate pragmatism, by which he means clear headed thinking about the best ways of ‘accelerating technology innovation, including nuclear energy, for tightening local air quality standards, … and for major investments in improving female literacy. … right and sensible things to do’. What he opposes are ‘desperate measures called forth by the unstable politics of a state of emergency’. Part of his argument is that panic leads to a bunker mentality in which we become less able or willing to critique proposed solutions and to generate responses that we have not currently thought of. It is an important perspective to consider.

Yet, to not declare an emergency or employ some sort of discursive circuit breaker runs the very real risk that business as usual will continue. Prevarication has delayed serious action for decades. Fossil fuel capitalism has resisted action and sown doubt among politicians and the public, particularly in the USA, in a deeply narcissistic protection of corporate profit. Even though it has been clear for many years that responding to climate change today is much cheaper than trying to fix it tomorrow, our political systems have been incapable of an adequate response. Ordinary politics has not delivered, and many now argue for a new political story and a new politics. This call is for a deeper more deliberative democracy, one that militates against the authoritarian politics that, rightfully, concerns Hulme and others.

This growing call to action reflects the views of many younger people who feel betrayed by older generations. There is little comfort for young people who will be very alive at the end of this century and who will be grappling with the consequences of climate chaos. In the words of Greta Thunberg:

‘No one is going to come and save us. We have to pull the emergency brake’.

Hulme argues that calling a climate emergency out of fear ‘induced by cliff-edge deadline-ism’ is not good psychology. Yet, this is not the only way to characterise the phenomenon of the recent climate emergency declarations, the school strikes and the rise of groups like Extinction Rebellion. Fear or worry about the future are not the same thing as panic. The work of Margaret Klein Salamon is an example where people’s engagement with ‘the truth’ about climate change leads to commitment and empowerment.

Emergency and Hope

It is now too late to put climate emergency back in the box. It is part of the language of climate activists, the broader community and, increasingly, governments. The Chancellor of my own University used it just a few days ago. The language is doing what it was designed to do; confront denial, incrementalism and deeply inadequate levels of political action. There are benefits to raising seriousness of the debate by using the language of emergency.

The climate emergency is, for the most part, a bottom-up response that is mostly focused on community building and social justice and therefore acts as an antidote to top-down techno-intervention. If climate change is left to policy elites, technocrats and corporate capitalism to sort out, then geoengineering may well become a bad idea whose time may have come (as Baskin has noted). A democratised climate emergency owned by citizens is not only worthwhile but is also an essential strategy in shaping our collective future.

The cautions given by Hulme and others are important. There is no hard tipping point which we are up against, and therefore we must be vigilant that panic does not drive dangerous experiments with climate control technologies. We must be vigilant against top-down solutions that separate the climate challenge from ordinary people for, as many have argued, climate is as much about justice as it is about technology, and therefore climate justice should be a clear focus.

There are risks, but also opportunities. The narrative of climate emergency is already embedded in notions of climate justice. For this reason I argue that the actual way the language of climate emergency is being used is less likely to drive panicked responses feared by some. In part, the emergency is a tool to drive planning because there is still time to act. Yet, without the political weight and consciousness raising that the climate emergency brings, the political inertia (not to mention the still significant resistance from the highly financed fossil fuel denial industry) is likely to frustrate meaningful action. It may still do so, despite such emergency declarations, so the climate emergency response is not yet a done deal.

But more importantly, the message of emergency leading to genuine action can be grounds for hope that is currently lacking. To again quote the 16 year old who seems to possess preternatural wisdom:

Instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.

Simon Kerr

Written by

Climate change activist, research fellow, musician, creator of ‘Music for a Warming World’, http://www.musicforawarmingworld.org

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