Queen's Policy Engagement

From declarations of climate emergencies to climate action: narratives and strategies of wartime and citizen mobilisations for rapid and just transitions

Governments across the world have declared a climate emergency. In this long read, Dr Noel Healy of Salem State University and Professor John Barry explore how these declarations and citizen mobilisations can open up opportunities for a 'just transition' beyond carbon.

From declarations of climate emergencies to climate action: narratives and strategies of wartime and citizen mobilisations for rapid and just transitions

“As for the future, it is not a question of predicting it, but of making it possible.”

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Citadelle, 1948

What are we to make of the Declarations of climate and ecological emergencies around the world? From the Scottish Government to the UK, Irish, French and Canadian Parliaments, to local authorities and municipalities across the world, and including networks representing more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions from 6 continents, all declaring climate and ecological emergencies. And not forgetting the Pope and the Catholic Church with 1 billion members.

On the one hand these declarations are to be welcomed as belated acceptance of the most recent climate science which has stressed the scale and urgency of reducing greenhouse emissions. The science indicates that to stay well below the 2°C warming limit mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement, global emissions have to peak no later than 2020 (i.e. within less than a year from now) and reduce by more than 7% annually thereafter.  Accepting the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – that is, to meet the lower and safer 1.5°C warming target – requires even more rapid and greater reductions: a 30-50% decrease in global emissions by 2030, across all systems from energy, land use, transportation to agriculture.  As that 2018 report put it, keeping to a 1.5°C target will require ‘far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’. As a result of decades of inaction, climate breakdown now represents an existential risk to humanity: one posing permanent, irreversible and massively negative consequences which can never be undone.

Are such declarations simply politicians and decision-makers ‘playing catch up’ (with the emphasis on playing) with recent mobilisations around greater and faster action on responding to our climate crisis from Extinction Rebellion, the youth strike for climate movement, the rise in support for Green Parties across Europe in May 2019 European Parliamentary elections, or the rise and prominence of Sir David Attenborough as one of the leaders, along with Greta Thunberg, of the contemporary climate action movement?

Are we witnessing with such declarations the uneven and perhaps dimly perceived significance of replacing the language of ‘climate change’ with that of ‘climate breakdown’, and related terms such as ‘climate emergency’, ‘disruption’ and ‘chaos’? Can we see some positive potentials in official declarations of climate and ecological emergencies in terms of signalling a step change and states and other large organisations such as the Catholic Church, sections of the business community (including finance) and trades unions moving beyond rhetoric to action?  Witness former UK Prime Minster Theresa May announcing that by 2050 the UK will be carbon neutral, on the back of significant business pressure as well as from the powerful Climate Change Committee.

But we also have examples in the opposite direction.  For example, despite the eloquent and scientifically informed words of his Holiness in his well-received 2015 papal encyclical Laudato ‘Si: Care for Our Common Home, perfectly timed in advance of the Paris 2015 climate negotiations, this has yet to result in solar panels on the roof of every Catholic Church, or other significant demonstrations of climate action by the Catholic Church.  Without action such declarations are rightly viewed as ‘eco virtue signalling’ by those organisations.  But perhaps we need to shift our gaze and attention from these organisations to those making the demands.

While one should always reserve judgment and be sceptical of rhetorical commitments such as these by those in power, there is reason to take them at face value as genuine, or indeed if not genuine, then perhaps they can function as ‘Trojan horses’ or (to mix metaphors) rods that states and organisations have created for themselves that can be used by citizens and movements to whip them into action. For example, official declarations of climate or ecological emergencies could provide an opportunity to further develop the ‘wartime mobilisation narrative’ and framing that some have suggested are powerful and motivating ways of galvanising democratic legitimacy and state action for rapid decarbonisation and climate resilience.

Patricia Espinosa, head of the United Nations climate change secretariat, has said existing country pledges to cut planet-warming emissions would heat the planet by 3 degrees Celsius (5.4F) from pre-industrial times.  In language that could as easily been mistaken as coming from a speech from Greta Thunberg, she stated that, ‘That is just not possible…We are literally in a climate emergency, and… we are increasingly hearing that this is the fight of our lives. It’s time that all people open their eyes to just how urgent things are’. Extinction Rebellion’s first demand to ‘Tell the truth about climate breakdown’ seems to have been accepted by all.  So what are we to make of the current situation where activists on the street and decision-makers in state and supra-state, and indeed big businesses and trade unions, all seem to be singing from the same climate action hymn sheet?

This is an opportunity for climate activists and citizens concerned enough to take the initiative and build on the success they have won by forcing the state at national and local levels and other powerful actors to accept that we are in a climate of ecological emergency. In many respects what these mobilisations have achieved is simply public transmission of scientific reports on the planetary emergency we are now facing. Extinction Rebellion, the school strike for climate, the divestment movement, environmentalists and Green Parties, all have simply been messengers of the basic scientific truth about our worsening climate and ecological situation. The sad reality is without the millions of people who took to the streets in various forms of protest over the last year or so, the 2018 IPCC report on the more recent IPBES UN report on species extinction may have just generated the usual 24-hour news attention cycle.  If nothing else such civil society mobilisations demonstrate the reality that ‘resistance is fertile not futile’.

But the time is now to build upon this achievement. These official state, corporate and others announcing climate emergencies should empower and strengthen more action for a rapid transition beyond carbon, greater divestment via proposals such has a ‘just transition’, and indeed opening up a space for strategies to explore ideas such as ‘energy democratisation’ and not just energy decarbonisation. There is an opening here with so many powerful institutions and actors accepting the truth of climate science: that we are in a planetary climate and ecological emergency etc., and that proposals and actions are possible now in ways that were unthinkable before. Or to put it another way; the transition to a low-carbon economy is inevitable (up there now with ‘death and taxes’).  However, what is not inevitable and is yet to be determined, is how just, inclusive or democratic that transition will be. So we should welcome these official declarations of climate and biodiversity emergencies, but be absolutely clear that they are necessary but insufficient, a positive but tentative step in the right direction. Citizens, old and new social movements (trades unions and environmentalists etc.), sections of business, faith communities and others must continue to not let up in pushing for more transformative and structural changes to our energy systems, to ensure that what we end up with is not simply a greening of the status quo, or what has been described by Barry as ‘biofuelling the Hummer’: a limited ‘greening of business as usual’, insufficient to the scale and urgency of the deeper structural political economy transformation needed. To give one example, in terms of mobility we need to ‘unpick city life from fossil-fuel automobile dependency’, which includes but goes much further than replacing internal combustion engine cars with electric cars.  A strategy of ‘electrifying the Hummer’ will not work either.

These declarations by official bodies of climate and ecological emergencies, whatever of the genuineness with which they are declared, should signal official legitimising of greater nonviolent action by citizens and groups to push further and faster. Belated and long overdue official sanctioning and acceptance (albeit limited) of the arguments and evidence of those who have for a long time been aware of the reality and severity of our climate and ecological emergency is welcome.  These activists (including scientists) should ‘welcome’ these official acknowledgements in one sense by internalising and being vindicated that ‘they were right all long’.  In some respects these pioneers who have led the way should say to those now accepting the reality of the climate crisis – ‘welcome, we’ve dusted off the cob-webs from your seats. Now roll up your sleeves and get to work’.

What should be obvious is that if a parliament or local government has declared a ‘climate emergency’, that means ‘business as usual’ is suspended or abandoned completely. We are now in an entirely unprecedented and qualitatively new context which requires new ideas, new thinking and abandoning the constraints of old, pre-emergency models, policy making process and strategies. In other words, such declarations by official bodies should now be used to press home citizens’ organisations and groups exploring new ideas, practices and policies of how to rise to the challenge and opportunities of creating low-carbon climate-resilient societies.  Hence, everything from rapid and planned divestment from carbon energy, a universal basic income/basic services, the sharing economy, state coordinated collective as opposed to individualised consumption, to local wealth models such as those pioneered by the cities of Cleveland in the USA and Preston in the UK, to the establishment of citizens’ assemblies and more deliberative democratic decision-making fora should be on the table.

In Ireland, where both writers are from, ‘the emergency’ is how we refer to the Second World War (we also refer to the 30-year Civil War in Northern Ireland as ‘the troubles’ – such is our capacity for understatement).  But declarations of climate and ecological emergencies should mean we are now in a wartime situation, facing a clear and present collective danger now and for future generations.  So we should act as if it is an emergency, view such official declarations as much needed ‘wake up calls’, and therefore move from ‘telling the truth about climate change’ to telling the truth and listening to as well as mobilising and enthusing populations about what acting as if it is climate emergency means to them and their communities.

The first step in recognising what we’re facing is to do just that: to recognise it. ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced’ as James Baldwin wisely said.  It is also important to recognise that such wartime mobilisation framing, does not and should not blind us to the deep inequalities and disparities in power, resources, and responsibilities that exist within and between societies. A declaration or acceptance of a climate and ecological emergency framed as wartime mobilisation efforts is not to elide or erase the dangers of calls to mobilise populations with slogans such as ‘we’re all in this together’ or ‘we’re all in the same boat’, as if issues of inequality and injustice by class, race, and gender, are somehow to be forgotten about in addressing climate breakdown. Climate breakdown needs to be framed as a matter of justice so that no community is left behind, or that no community is disproportionately impacted negatively by this transition.  Hence, any strategy likely to generate sufficient popular support has to be a ‘just transition’.  Here the climate and ecological emergency declarations need to link up with and be informed by other declarations such as the 2018 Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration.

And from recognising the truth of climate chaos, states – from national to city levels – need to coordinate processes to develop and deliver positive, realistic and inclusive transition pathways towards a low carbon, climate resilient future.  As suggested above, such pathways should not be constrained by ‘business as usual’ thinking or concerns, given being in an emergency means by defection that ‘business as usual’ is suspended. But while not sugar coating or engaging in the attractive default response mode of limiting our thinking to ‘win-win’ strategies or policies, ‘facing up to climate reality’ should also be framed as a positive, collective and transformative narrative. Ideally, to paraphrase the novelist Alasdair Gray, ‘we should transition as if in the early days of creating a better economy and society’, and here the hopeful determination of creating a better society expressed in both the just transition and Green New Deal narratives and strategies (but also in more radical proposals such as ‘post-growth’ and ‘degrowth’) need to be emphasised.  But above all else it should be viewed and acted upon as a necessary and overdue course of collective action.

Declarations of climate emergency may also open up the possibility of honouring carbon energy workers and communities, those who for decades created the energy and wealth and assets that was possible from our exploitation of gas, oil, and coal resources. These communities and workers are not ‘climate criminals’, but communities who should be thanked for their service, and in doing so we must never forget the enormous benefits that carbon energy has, on the whole, brought to humanity. But it is now time for us to move on, and for a chance of climate stability (meeting the Paris 2015 1.5 ◦ target) to ‘keep carbon in the ground’ and recognising and implementing policies and practices to overcome continuing ‘carbon lock in’. In honouring the benefits of fossil resources (we should as Princen et al point out reframe ‘fossil fuels’ as ‘fossil resources’), and the communities involved in extracting and making them useful for humanity, we also create the conditions for a just transition beyond carbon, which may also be a transition beyond orthodox economic growth….and capitalism. But that is for another day.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Professor John Barry and Dr Noel Healy
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John Barry is a Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics. His research interests include green political theory, politics and the political economy of sustainability. Noel Healy is an Associate Professor of Geography at Salem State University. His research focuses on responses to the climate crisis and normative dimensions of rapid climate change mitigation.

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