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Can declaring a climate emergency have unintended consequences?

This piece will be part of a regular blog from Future Earth Communications Director Alistair Scrutton on issues of communicating science. The blog does not represent the views of Future Earth.

For a rather ominous signal of where we may be heading, look no further than U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren. “Senior military leaders have warned Congress of the national security challenge that climate change poses,” the candidate tweeted in May. “Today, I am introducing my Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act to harden the U.S. military against the threat posed by climate change.”

For those of you that believe the U.S. military is a force for good around the world, these are reassuring words. For those of you who have your doubts about U.S. national altruism, it is worth thinking about the often unintended consequences of language.

Warren, along with 5 other presidential candidates, have declared a “climate emergency.” Google “climate emergency” and you get around 2.5 million results. Warren is indeed part of a trend spurred by the global climate movement. More than 900 cities and municipalities from 18 countries have declared a climate emergency. The phrase has now become the dominate narrative for newspapers like the Guardian.

The U.S. military, climate groups, and the public are being spurred into action amid dire reports from the IPCC, combined with record temperatures, continued sea ice melt, extreme weather, and Amazon fires. The sense of impending doom is a key motivation. For many youth, it is a cry to the elder generation holding the reins of power to wake up and take action – and quickly.

But can this collective cry have unintended consequences?

First, let’s review the definition of “emergency.” Collins dictionary defines it as an “unexpected and difficult and dangerous situation … which happens suddenly and requires quick action to deal with it.” Merriam states it as, “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.”

The key aspect here is immediate action. And considering the time scale of trying to shift policies and attitudes among the planet’s 7 billion people, this is indeed central. Immediate action is needed to make our planet a sustainable one and with every year or decade of meagre action, the risks of full-scale climatic catastrophe increase.

“Climate emergencies,” often formally declared at a municipal or city level, can engage and mobilize citizens by linking planetary trends with neighborhood ones. In the U.S., for example, it could be a tactic for unlocking more public funds for action.

It may also build global, political momentum. One could envisage these calls leading to a formal declaration by the United Nations or even from a new, incoming U.S. president. Perhaps climate issues will then be framed within national budgets and major policy decisions across local and national parliaments, helping drive change.

But perhaps not. There are some serious caveats that come with the term “emergency.” Whether you agree or disagree with the declarations, it is worth keeping them in mind.

Recently, an Indian scientist and colleague of mine expressed to me opposition to this term. The argument was that the term “emergency” has uncomfortable connotations in India – namely “the Emergency” from 1975 to 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and ruled by decree, suspending many basic civil rights. Collins dictionary defines a “state of emergency” as when “authorities introduce special measures such as to increase powers for the police and army.” And from Google: “a situation of national danger or disaster in which a government suspends normal constitutional procedures in order to regain control.” It is a term that can be interpreted in autocratic ways.

Climate discourse should be seen in the context of global political developments. At a time when the very notion of liberal democracy is being questioned, could declaring emergencies play into the hands of populist movements or superpowers? Declarations of emergency help the belief that democratic consensus and policy pragmatism are not working, especially regards climate change. That may be true, but what is the new policy model going forward?

“Increasingly the vocabulary around it is being militarized,” recently penned Indian writer Arundhati Roy. “And no doubt very soon its victims will become the ‘enemies’ in the new war without end. Calls for a climate ‘emergency’, although well meaning, could hasten the process that has already begun.”

Secondly, those propagating a declaration of emergency should be clear about what they want. Does the short-term frame for change mean coercive policy measures are justified on the consumer front – say limiting airline travel, or banning beef? Or does it mean enforcing new, strict regulations on the corporations who have disproportionately created the situation we are in today?

Thirdly, if this is a real emergency, will we allow more geoengineering, for example, the injection of millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere? It is seen by many as a risky policy of trying to change physical earth systems, but proponents could argue emergencies call for desperate measures.

Fourthly, climate emergency has a dominant narrative – one similar to the failed “Project Fear” from those campaigning to stay in the European Union during the UK Brexit referendum. Cambridge University Professor Mike Hulme argues that: “Publicly calling for climate emergencies to be declared on the basis of the fear induced by cliff-edge deadline-ism is not good psychology. Neither is it based on good science and nor does it lead to effective politics.” Hulme argues that emergency declarations will hem in policy makers to short-sighted policies and discourage constructive debate. Policies perceived as not offering quick solutions may be jettisoned.

Finally, what is the potential for countries to declare emergencies and do nothing, happy to bask in the popularity of declarations rather than acting? Is it possible for the word “emergency” to quickly become a devalued term, leading to voter apathy? Politically, can the term polarize opinion, risking excluding large parts of the public.

The problem with all these five points is that they don’t offer much of a solution either. Those critical about climate emergency declarations need to show an effective way forward, that disrupts the current policy funk without undermining democratic principles.

Politically, climate crunch time is coming.

This piece will be part of a regular blog from Future Earth Communications Director Alistair Scrutton on issues of communicating science. The blog does not represent the views of Future Earth.


September 10, 2019


Alistair Scrutton



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