18 November 2019

Climate emergency (1): “Something has shifted”

Welcome to this “rough guide” blog series on the climate emergency and climate emergency campaigning. This series looks at some of the questions frequently asked about the topic: what does the science say, what is an emergency, does the climate crisis fit the bill, what can councils do, how can we talk about it, what needs to be done, what about business, can the political system deal with an issue this big? And many more. Climate emergency campaigning is relatively new. There are not too many recent precedents about how to achieve a change in society’s normal functioning to solve an overwhelming threat.
by David Spratt. First in a series.

Contemporary culture is fast-moving and unsettled. From constant digital disruption and precarious employment to insecurity about nations’ and peoples’ places in a globalised world, and changing expressions of identity, we live in a world that is restless.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes of a “self-propelling, self-intensifying, compulsive and obsessive ‘modernisation’, as a result of which, like liquid, none of the consecutive forms of social life is able to maintain its shape for long.”

Twenty-first century consumerist culture is fashioned to fit individual freedom of choice, and to ensure that responsibility for choice and its consequences are on the shoulders of the individual, rather than society.

Bauman describes a world of hyper-consumption: “Culture today is engaged in laying down temptations, luring and seducing, sowing and planting new needs and desires, a demand for constant change, serving the turnover-oriented consumer market.” Culture manifests itself as “a repository of goods, competing for the unbearably fleeting and distracted attention of potential clients”.
It is difficult to try and keep up. For many people, it is unsatisfying and seems out of control.

“Staying alive in  the future”

Add in the darkening clouds of climate disruption, the degradation of Earth’s natural systems, and the proximity of the sixth mass extinction event in history, and it is not difficult to understand why people are disturbed about the future. Mental health issues are projected to be the biggest epidemic in the West this century. Deep concern about environmental and social crises are affecting more and more people.

We are growing increasingly alarmed, and for good reason.

Sally Rugg, Executive Director of Change.org tweeted: “Millennials aren’t depressed because of social media apps, we’re depressed because we can’t see a future for ourselves that involves a stable job, somewhere that’s ours to live, safe air, food and water.”

“I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear,” says Greta Thunberg.

In a recent Quarterly Essay, the Australian social researcher Rebecca Huntley observed that “just recently something has shifted”. She says that in 2018, when she asked about the main benefits of a healthy environment and taking action on climate change, “the overwhelming first response was around health: mental, physical and social health relied on a healthy environment”.

But the second concern was “staying alive in the future”. Huntley says that: “Participants spoke in terms of survival! Many in the groups also recognise that when it came to transitioning to a low-carbon economy and holding the rate of species extinction, time was running out and there was a high cost to inaction. There was a new tone of urgency.”

Huntley says that as a community “we are inching towards the recognition of the scale of the threat climate change poses to our safety and security… What we need is extraordinary and consistent displays of leadership: not just to accurately describe the threat but to paint a picture for citizens of what addressing it might involve. A mixture of sacrifice, selflessness, courage and adaptation.” She says it requires “the kind of mobilisation of people and communities, assets and resources, government and infrastructure usually reserved for a world war”.

Climate emergency

Since late 2018, the language of “climate emergency” has exploded into the public sphere in a spectacular way, with more than 1170 national, regional and governments adopting the term. The Guardian issued new language guidelines to staff: “Instead of ‘climate change’ the preferred terms are ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’."

In mid-2018, such language was rarely, if ever, heard in the media, among politicians and policymakers, or from professional climate advocates.

The use of the term “climate emergency” accelerated rapidly from late 2018, following its use by student strikers around the world and Greta Thunberg’s brutally direct language, the rapidly growing climate emergency local government campaigns, its adoption by Extinction Rebellion and The Climate Mobilisation, and the enormous response in the US, and internationally, to the Green New Deal proposals.

The UN Secretary General António Guterres says: “So we are losing the race, climate change is running faster than we are, and we need to sound the alarm, this is an emergency, this is a climate crisis and we need to act now. Unfortunately in politics, there is always a huge trend to keep the status quo. The problem is that the status quo is a suicide.” (emphasis added).

At the 2019 Bonn climate discussions, UNFCCC head, Patricia Espinoza, described the current situation as a “climate emergency” and called on everyone to take part in “the fight of our lives”.

Research from The Australia Institute published in April 2019 found that a clear majority of Australians agree the nation “is facing a climate emergency” requiring emergency action and that, in response, governments should “mobilise all of society” like they did during the world wars.

Quite suddenly and in an extraordinary manner, the term has become a common term for describing the climate crisis, and part of the everyday language of politicians, journalists and climate activists, emergency services managers and policymakers, though with a diffuse meaning.

The need for a “climate emergency” response has been normalised.

Turning those words into a genuine climate emergency plan and mobilisation by governments around the world is now a big task, but the only strategy that matches ambition to the scale of the problem.