On May 1st, the UK Parliament approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency. The UK, followed by Ireland, have led the way by responding to public pressure to act on climate change, albeit a non-binding legal commitment.

Pushing for governments and local authorities to declare climate emergencies was one of the key demands of the activists who occupied on the streets of London during April. The group called Extinction Rebellion were calling for three primary demands.

  1. The UK Government be truthful about the risk and declare a climate emergency
  2. To ensure the emergency target is legally binding to a net zero 2025 target, instead of the current 80% by 2050 target
  3. To create a citizens’ assembly to oversee progress

Why declare a climate emergency?

The premise of a declaring an emergency was first championed by Margaret Klein Salamon, Founder of The Climate Mobilization (TCM) in the US in 2014. Her paper ‘A New Strategy for the Climate Movement’ argues the planet needs ‘emergency mobilisation’ to drive a sense of urgency not achieved to date.

Environment commentators over the years, myself included, have argued the drive to low carbon needs to be achieved through promoting the benefits of good practice (whether economic/business resilience etc), exploiting the human desire to grow and prosper in a low carbon world. Dr Klein Salamon argues these movements, albeit well-intentioned, have been too slow and created ‘carbon gradualism’ that is just not sufficient to prevent climate change. The only way, she argues, that climate change can be tackled is head-on, with more assertive action.

Fear of paralysis

A common worry is that fear creates panic, which may result in a paralysis of action. Dr Klein Salamons argues this belief is unfounded and examples exist whereby mobilisations have countered threats with great effect. The US mobilisation effort in WWII after Pearl Harbour and the global reaction to the AIDS pandemic are noted examples. Driving action on AIDS arose from targeted communications with governments and influencers highlighting the threat and actions needed. Dr Klein Salamon’s point is extreme acts of focus will not result in panic, as long as they’re adequately resourced with a clear sense of purpose.

What next?

Dr Klein Salamon’s white paper is worth a read and challenges many conceptions of how we communicate today about climate change. I fully agree more needs to be done and accept that progress hasn’t been fast enough, yet I’m unsure the ‘transformative power of climate truth’ that movement seeks can work without a clearer sense of purpose.

Climate change for many is still something they’ve not personally experienced and they’ll find it hard to relate how the personal activities make a difference. We’re all increasingly emotionally detached from what we see on TV and social media causes many to question what’s real. At the same time society is naturally materialistic and if saying today’s generation must give up what they currently have for the next generation, they will need to be clearer why. As far as I know, no generation has sought to have less for their whole lifetime (e:g: not just short term war effort rations), over the previous generation.

The good news is climate change is very much back on the global agenda and governments around the world are starting to listen. The question is – Will this end in action and not simply reaffirm the current pledges?