David Spratt: Reclaiming the term “climate emergency” an urgent task

Volume 43. No. 2 of the academic Slovenian philosophy journal Filozofski vestnik, which was published on 23 March 2023, has ‘Emergency’ as its theme and contains a 29-page article by the Australian author and research director David Spratt titled “Reclaiming ‘Climate Emergency’”

David Spratt writes:

“Climate emergency” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2019. Remarkably, only two years earlier, the term was in use only within relatively limited climate activist circles. And today the phrase has become ubiquitous and applied so indiscriminately – even by governments who simultaneously champion the fossil fuel industry – that it has significantly lost meaning. Reclaiming the term “climate emergency” is an urgent task.

The term “climate emergency” was employed in the 2008 book ‘Climate Code Red’ as both a problem statement and a solutions strategy. The core propositions – that the biophysical circumstances were worse than generally understood, that the 2°C goal was dangerously high, and that the time for incremental change had expired – are re-examined in light of events over the last decade and the growing existential risk.

The failure to recognise and respond to the climate emergency, and the incapacity of markets to do so, means that widespread social, economic, and physical disruption is now inevitable. An emergency mode of response, characterised by decisive state leadership and market intervention which challenges the dominant economic paradigm, is now necessary to protect contemporary civilisation.”


“Perhaps there is a path forward which starts with an honest, and necessarily disturbing, public conversation about the choices we face and the need to act upon the realistic assessments of the existential threat that scientists and activists have exposed, and which capital and governments have done everything to avoid. In times of adversity, people are willing to accept radical changes to their circumstances if there is a commonly shared purpose. Ukraine is but one example.

Studies of rationing imposed during WWII in the UK found that the population largely accepted the rigours and deprivations imposed by the state because they saw them as both fair and necessary. Yet when it comes to climate change and the objective need for an emergency mobilisation, the conversation about equitable responsibility has barely started, and a message of economic reallocation will fall on deaf ears unless people see that the affluent are carrying their fair share of the burden and disruption.”

The article “Reclaiming ‘Climate Emergency’” was published in Filozofski vestnik and is available here.

David Spratt is research director of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, based in Melbourne, Australia, and co-author of ‘Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action’ (Scribe, 2008).

The Slovenian journal Filozofski vestnik is edited and published by the Institute of Philosophy of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.