Concept of ‘climate emergency’ enters mainstream of society

“Welcome to the climate emergency: you’re about 20 years late”, wrote Graham Readfearn in The Guardian in March 2016. However, he was ahead of his time. Three more years were to pass before something happened that had a great deal to do with a bright 16-year-old Swedish student. Future historians are more likely to be observing that 2019 was the year the ‘climate emergency’ genie eventually was allowed to come out of its bottle and go mainstream.

During those two decades, Readfearn talks about, the expression ‘climate emergency’ has officially been blacklisted by professionals campaigning for climate action as an expression not to be used. It was based on social studies that warn, or advice, never to use this expression in public communication about climate change because researchers have found that it scares people and makes them turn off and disconnect from any engagement with the topic or with taking action.

With the release of the IPCC’s report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC in October 2018 something changed. Newspapers like The Guardian and global, mainstream media outlets like BBC and CNN, as well as international NGOs such as Greenpeace have started using the expression in their reporting and campaigning, blended with words such as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘unstoppable’.

→ Greenpeace: “Declare a Climate Emergency Now – then Act Like it”

In Australia during the last months of 2018, the ‘climate emergency’ expression was increasingly talked about in the open by a growing number of politicians, councillors and scientists just as well. Like when Labor’s Mark Butler spoke in parliament in December 2018, saying:

The world is facing a climate emergency. Our country is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Government action and policy matters. Labor is not just ready to take action here; we are impatient to take action. We know that this is in the national interest, that this is in our children’s interest, and that this is in our grandchildren’s interest.”
~ Mark Butler, in a speech on 4 December 2018

“We need government to call it what it is – a climate emergency.”
~ By CNN’s Sarah Lazarus

Extinction Rebellion Ireland in Dublin. Photo: @ExtinctRebelsIE

The fact is that we are in a climate emergency, whether we like to talk about it or not. And if what we are currently experiencing, with almost 400 councils in five countries declaring a climate emergency, is anything to take guidance from, then the claimed ‘disconnecting effect’ of talking about the emergency does not seem to be working that way at all.

Rather, it appears to have a positive and engaging effect. For example, the Guardian Australia news website was recently able to raise $100,000 in just a matter of two days, when they called for help with funding a new ‘climate emergency’ reporting initiative. Evidently, the use of those two reputed words did not scare supporters away — on the contrary, it got them to rush to chip in.

An example of the mainstreaming of the climate emergency concept and expression is that newspapers now have established the expression as a specific, searchable tag in their online content. For instance, here is what it looks like on The Independent’s website.

Eventually, and in particular after the British parliament declared a climate emergency on 1 May 2018, GetUp (“We need to do the same”), WWF “Demand action on the climate emergency” and numerous other large NGOs have adopted the ‘climate emergency’ terminology.

“Councils are breaking the silence on the climate emergency, leading central governments and NGOs around the world.”
~ Bryony Edwards, CACE

“The Climate Emergency movement has been one of the most striking developments in the fight against climate change, coming as scientists warn we have only 12 years to limit global warming before catastrophic damage occurs. Councils of all stripes have begun to pass motions to dramatically accelerate carbon reduction action.

In this interview, Green World talks to Bryony Edwards, one of the campaigners behind the first Climate Emergency declaration in Darebin, Australia, about the movement’s origins and its next steps.”

» Green World – February 2019:
The Climate Emergency movement
“Green World talks to Bryony Edwards, one of the campaigners behind the first Climate Emergency declaration in Darebin, Australia, about the movement’s origins and its next steps.”

See also:

» BBC News – 15 March 2019:
Climate strike: What is a climate emergency?
“Dozens of towns and cities across the UK have declared ‘a climate emergency’.” By Lindsay Brown, BBC Newsbeat reporter

» The Guardian – 14 March 2019:
‘This is an emergency’: Australia’s student climate strikes and where you can find them
“Strikes are planned at 60 locations in Australia, including every state and territory capital”

» The Guardian – 4 March 2019:
Parliament must declare a climate emergency – not ignore it
“Westminster’s lacklustre approach is incredible. We need nothing short of a transformation of the way we live our lives.” Commentary by Caroline Lucas

» The Guardian – March 2019:
The frontline: Australia and the climate emergency
“The north has flooded, the south is parched by drought. Rivers are dying and forests are burning. We are living the reality of climate change. This reader-funded series investigates its true impact and interrogates policy solutions and adaptations.”

» Global News – 18 March 2019:
Hamilton’s board of health declares climate emergency
“Hamilton’s Board of Health has voted 10-0 to declare a “climate emergency.””

» CBC – 19 March 2019:
Hamilton sounds climate change alarm by declaring a climate emergency
‘We’re urging you to step it up,’ says Lynda Lukasik. ‘I don’t know how else to put it’

» The Guardian – 18 March 2016:
Welcome to the climate emergency: you’re about 20 years late
“February 2016 saw global warming records tumble with new data suggesting more Australians think humans are the cause.” By Graham Readfearn