This morning I was packaging up a large card that I made with my son last week. It’s addressed to the council, thanking them for declaring a climate emergency, and signed by members of our local Extinction Rebellion branch. Luton is now listed among dozens of regional declarations across the country, varying in size from the village of Welcombe (population 187) to the Greater London Authority (over 8 million).
But how many countries have made a climate emergency declaration so far? And what purpose do they serve?
The first country to take the step was Scotland, followed by Wales and then the British parliament last year. Though as it was parliament acting independently, there is no obligation for the government to recognise the declaration and I’m not sure the UK one should be counted.
The most recent declaration is Spain. Their new government called it last week, and intends to deliver a climate plan in their first 100 days. Spain is highly vulnerable to climate change, especially water shortages. Talk of emergency does not sound like hyperbole in a country that could see its Southern territories turn into a desert if current rates of change continue.
Another country that is all too aware of the emergency is Bangladesh, which was the first developing country to make a declaration. They called it a ‘planetary emergency’, passing a motion through parliament unanimously in 2019. In the words of the proposing MP, Saber Hossain Chowdhury: “For the first time in human history, our planet faces a series of converging crises, all on the same timeline – global warming, disasters, extreme weather events, bio-diversity loss, acidification of oceans, water stress, food insecurity, planetary overshoot. A perfect storm is brewing and we must act now before it’s too late.”
In Latin America, Argentina was the first country to make a declaration, led by the Fridays for the Future movement. Youth activists, known as ‘Los Pibes de Greta’, played a key role in forming alliances, building relationships and pressing for change.
There are several others, including the EU Parliament’s declaration, made ahead of the COP in December. Then there are all the thousands of cities and regions that have taken the step. It’s also worth mentioning that the whole idea of a climate emergency declaration comes from Australia. It was Green Party councillors in a district of Melbourne, Darebin City Council, that moved first back in 2016 and inspired the whole phenomenon.
But what’s the point? These declarations are largely symbolic. It’s unusual to find a plan of any kind attached, so at best they serve as a starting point. What’s the value of a climate emergency declaration?
I think there are several:
First, it draws a line in the sand. Whether the measure passes unanimously or not, it serves to end debate over whether action on climate change is necessary. It allows authorities to take responsibility and show that from now on, it’s on the agenda. This shouldn’t be needed in 2020, but it is.
Second, it frames climate change as an emergency. That involves a recognition that action up to this point hasn’t been enough, and that more is needed. It injects urgency into carbon reduction plans. It’s easy to push the risk of climate change into the distance by talking about 2050 or 2100. An emergency declaration acknowledges that it is a clear and present danger, if not for us yet, then for those at the sharp end of climate breakdown.
Third, it gives campaigners something to hold their authorities too. It’s a leverage point. When a government declares an emergency, it’s a statement of intent that they are now accountable to. We can call them back to that, asking what concrete plans they have, or calling them out when their actions are going in the wrong direction.
Finally, every new announcement adds to a wave of declarations that are setting a new standard. The pressure can work in both directions, with national declarations prompting local action, or lots of local actions pressuring government to act. That works for all authorities, not just political ones. If your university, church or workplace is ignoring the climate crisis, there is a multitude of declarations to point too to show that we expect more.
So there’s something to celebrate about every new climate emergency declaration, even if they don’t add up to change in and of themselves. And that’s why I’m off to deliver this card.