Alex Massie 25 February 2020

Is it a climate ‘emergency’?

I’ve been to – and hosted – quite a few public events regarding the action on climate change, and one of the most commonly asked questions has been 'is it really an emergency?' It has been raised by sustainability professionals, members of the public and council officers and councillors. It’s a question that deserves a proper hearing and a good answer, or using the language of 'emergency' risks sinking into hyperbole.

Emergent properties

What makes something an 'emergency'? The word dates back to the 1630s and has the same root as 'emerge': the Latin emergere, meaning 'to rise up or out'. Modern definitions are all pretty similar, with the one from Collins being fairly typical: 'An emergency is an unexpected and difficult or dangerous situation, especially an accident, which happens suddenly and which requires quick action to deal with it.'

It’s also a term we find defined in law. Section 1 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA2004) defines 'emergency' so as to include an event or situation that threatens serious damage to (a) human welfare in a place in the UK or (b) the environment of a place in the UK.

Climate change is certainly a difficult and dangerous situation, and one that threatens serious damage to human welfare and the UK’s environment. It has arisen as an unexpected consequence of our reliance on fossil fuels – at least, unexpected at the point when we embarked down that path. But the root of the difficulty some people have in calling it ‘an emergency’ seems to relate to three linked temporal considerations.

The element of surprise

The first aspect is what we might term 'lack of surprise'. Some of those well-placed to do something about climate change have been aware of the risks since at least the early 1980s; but by 1990, international climate conferences were taking place, with the problem being acknowledged by then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, the emergence of sceptics gave rise to thirty years of debate over whether climate change was real, sowing doubts for many (including Thatcher) and providing a justification for inaction.

The effect of the prolonged debate over climate change is that it is a problem that seems to have been with us forever. It hasn’t suddenly 'emerged' in the way that might be typical of an emergency; rather, it has come slowly into focus – and has become a bigger problem because of the years of slow, and inadequate action. Now, at last, we have reached a point where the problem is being officially recognized. Although the slow process by which this has occurred makes the situation feel less emergency-like, it is important that we are now recognising the issue of climate change for the emergency it has become.

As a species, we inherently operate in groups. Thus, we seek reassurance from those around us that we are seeing the same thing, and therefore, have permission to respond accordingly. There are numerous psychological experiments that demonstrate this phenomenon, but we all feel it at some stage in everyday life. Climate emergencies are being declared because there are now enough people who acknowledge there’s a problem, and are finding others around them sharing this appreciation – giving them the confidence to insist that action must be taken. As more people share this perception, the strength of conviction in there being an emergency increases as it is reinforced by others. Ultimately, an emergency exists when enough people believe that it exists, and act accordingly, no matter how long it takes us to reach that recognition.

Decision time

The second consideration might be termed 'lack of salience'. At present, many people do not see climate change affecting their everyday lives – so is it an emergency for them? The nature of climatic change is such that we’ll not see a dramatic alteration tomorrow, or the day after. We struggle to notice gradual changes in the probability and severity of weather events – after all, there have always been storms, floods and fires; but by the time we look back in 30 years’ time, the changes we will be reflecting on will be astonishing. It is certainly not typical of an 'emergency' that we have to reflect so carefully to see its effects.

However, this lack of salience is becoming harder to sustain as the number of natural disasters that can be linked to climate change increases. Whether it is hurricanes in the Caribbean, drought in California or wild fires in Australia, the number of people directly affected is increasing. It should not be necessary to wait for a predictable disaster, such as Miami losing drinking water, for us to see that climate change is something that touches almost everyone.

Third is the issue we might term 'urgency'. Many of the changes that need to be made to address climate change are being pitched as taking a long time to implement, and politicians are not presenting climate change to the public as something that demands action now. Bringing forward the UK’s ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 to 2035 is a welcome change, but it is still a slow timetable.

Our idea of an emergency is that it demands decisive action to be taken in a short time. That is reflected, for example, in the CCA2004: most of the powers central government has under it involve suspending normal legislative processes to allow ministers to make new laws quickly so as to address the emergency. It’s quite easy to argue that climate change constitutes an 'emergency' under the CCA2004, but more questionable whether the Government needs the powers that such a declaration would grant it. There is a need for urgent action, but perhaps we are not yet at a point where it must be taken without going through the normal channels and proper scrutiny.

Some of the actions we need to take might require relatively lengthy transition periods, but this shouldn’t detract from the urgency of making decisions. Many of the necessary changes could be difficult and inconvenient for people, and the temptation to defer them to a time when technological advances could make them easier, or cheaper, is strong. However, setting a clear direction of travel now provides an incentive for technological change, and can reduce the scale of the problem we have to tackle. For example, more than half a million homes have been built in the UK since 2016; had the Government not elected to scrap a long-planned Zero Carbon Homes Standard shortly before it would have come into effect in that year, all of these premises would have met strict energy efficiency standards. Instead, in order to reduce emissions, they will in future need to be expensively retrofitted. By delaying action in other areas, we’re having the same effect again – and so the need for action is in truth more urgent than it appears.

Crisis talks

Having explored these temporal considerations, it appears that the use of the word 'emergency' is justified, despite the unusually long time period over which we need to think about addressing climate change. But is there a better word?

'Crisis' sounds important, but does not carry quite the same implication of a threat of serious harm. 'Disaster' implies something that has already happened – the sort of thing that might be the outcome of an emergency. 'Calamity' has the same problem; and like 'peril' it sounds a little whimsical.

Perhaps we need a new word, or even an entirely new lexicon, to communicate the climate emergency to those who are not swayed by the science. However, for the time being it seems we have no better word than 'emergency' for the situation climate change places us in – and by using it, we will help expand its definition to cover these new, unprecedented climate and ecological emergencies that we are living in.

Next time I am asked why it is an 'emergency', I know how I will answer. There is an immense threat to life as we know it; and while it may sometimes feel remote, it is likely to affect everyone. It may have emerged gradually, and some of the actions we must take to address it may require take a decade or more to implement, but we have limited time to act. These characteristics make it unlike many other emergencies – it is more subtle, and perhaps therefore more dangerous than any other we have encountered. But we need to recognise it for what it is so that we can do what is necessary to avoid disaster.

Alex Massie is senior consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd

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