Bryce Edwards: The problems with declaring climate change emergencies

Bryce Edwards: The problems with declaring climate change emergencies

It seems inevitable that New Zealand will soon officially be in a state of emergency over climate change, with a declaration likely to be passed in Parliament. Is this a good thing?

The debate over moving into official emergency status has already been going on in every local government body throughout the country. A large number of authorities have voted to declare climate emergencies. It’s happening overseas, too – mostly with local authorities, but countries like the UK have also officially moved into a state of declared emergency.

These council declarations have been a useful way for politicians to illustrate their commitment to addressing climate change. But there’s also a lot of doubt about what declaring a climate emergency really means, whether it will achieve anything or be “enough”, and even whether it might actually be a mistake.

Political scientist and climate change campaigner Bronwyn Hayward, of the University of Canterbury, has spoken out against the trend for climate change emergency declarations. She was recently interviewed on RNZ by Jessie Mulligan, and argued that the declarations can be counterproductive and ineffective. She said: “When people are in panic mode, they’re easily manipulated, and one of the big risks is that people panic and don’t look at the basic things that are possible and within our grasp to do right now” – see: Taking climate change seriously without being alarmist. The whole 18-minute interview is well worth listening to.

Hayward “is worried recent doom-and-gloom climate reports will just induce paralysis and panic.” She says: “it is great that we are seeing the urgency, but it’s actually taking the practical steps that matters more than the declarations.” And she argues that the concept of an immediate emergency is also one that goes against the need for a sustained long-term approach: “People can’t sustain this long period of panic, so my worry is what happens when this drops off? We need to be building for a sense of inter-generational support over the long haul, not just the immediate.”

Hayward prefers that climate change action focuses more on solutions than hyperbole about imminent collapse and chaos: “Let’s wind back the language of panic and wind up the language of practical action.”

Talking to Herald science journalist Jamie Morton, Hayward cautioned against the Auckland Council’s declaration of emergency, arguing it was more important to focus on actions: “We can’t maintain this level of intensity – we have to get quite practical and a lot of that is very boring… It’s attending to those first principles of lowering carbon emissions in the cities, like changing the way we build our buildings, tackling freshwater supplies and making sure our housing is as dense as we can make it, live-ably” – see: Explained: What does Auckland’s ‘climate emergency’ actually mean? (paywalled).

The same article also discusses the legalities of whether the climate change crisis could be classified as a Civil Defence emergency: “As it stood, climate change wasn’t included in the formal definition of an ‘emergency’ under the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act 2002. A declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ also had no other inherent statutory or legal implications.”

So, if it’s problematic to deal with climate change with a declared state of emergency, should it be something stronger? Political journalist Henry Cooke has argued this week that a declaration of war makes more sense: “War is much better. Wars take several years, require cooperation between countries, and often produce millions of refugees, much like climate change will. Vast technological change can be engendered as countries gear their entire economies towards a singular goal outside of simple growth” – see: We don’t need a climate emergency. We need a climate war.

Here’s Cooke’s main argument against the concept of a state of climate emergency: “Emergency responses are almost the opposite of what climate change requires. Emergencies last for small periods of time and require governments to temporarily act quickly to deploy resources to the effected area, in order to make an abnormal situation normal again. Almost everyone accepts that the normal rules should be suspended for this immediate response – dairy owners hand out water, respondents work overtime, and normalcy is eventually restored. Climate change is nothing like this. It is urgent but not urgent like an earthquake is. And fixing it requires a much more structural change to the way the world is run than other emergencies do”.

Another important analysis and critique of the logic of declaring climate emergencies can be found in Mark Blackham’s recent opinion piece, Declarations of climate emergencies will only increase apathy. As with Hayward, he suggests that the declarations will have a negative impact on fostering the public mood for change, suggesting that “Right when we most need sombre, thoughtful global and local action, our institutions are all too often faddish and hypocritical.”

The good intentions behind the declarations are noted, and he agrees with the concept of trying to get people to understand the seriousness of climate change, but for Blackham, the declarations are too gimmicky, especially in the absence of sufficient actions taken by the politicians: “We get it, but there is no emergency in the sense that ordinary people commonly use it. Where are the dead, dying and the fleeing? Where are the emergency services? No matter how you co-opt language, reality interferes. We will always respond differently to an emergency happening in the next 10 years, and an emergency happening right now.”

Blackham says “I doubt the authorities will take the sort of robust action that corresponds to an emergency. There will be no bans on cars, foreign travel, or imported consumer goods.” Ultimately, therefore, the public will lose more trust in those institutions making the declarations, and will become more cynical about climate change.

Does it matter if the emergency declarations are simply “symbolic gestures”? According to scientist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland, this is exactly what is needed at the moment: “Symbolic gestures are what motivated New Zealand support to end apartheid and the nuclear-free stance and they had an effect, and we can hold our heads high knowing we were clear where we stood” – see Joel MacManus’ PM Jacinda Ardern: Government ‘not opposed to’ idea of declaring a climate emergency.

Atkinson is one of “more than 50 of New Zealand’s top scientists” calling for a declaration of emergency. And responding to this, “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the Government is not opposed to declaring a national climate emergency”.

Ardern is reported as favouring a New Zealand-wide emergency declaration, but also suggesting that the Government is already dealing sufficiently with the problem: “I don’t see why there should be any reason why members of Parliament wouldn’t want to demonstrate that this is a matter of urgency… The one thing I think we need to make really clear though – a declaration in Parliament doesn’t change our direction of travel. It’s what we invest in and it’s the laws that we pass that make the big difference and on those grounds I think we are making good, solid progress.”

Ardern has also reiterated that the Government’s progress so far shows that the emergency approach already exists: “Certainly I would like to think our policies and our approach demonstrates that we do see it as an emergency” – see Jason Walls’ Jacinda Ardern is keen on declaring a climate-change emergency but roadblock remains.

This article explains that a motion was earlier put in Parliament by Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick but was voted down by National. The National Party spokesperson on climate change issues, Todd Muller, criticised the motion as being just “Green Party symbolism”, and explained why his party didn’t support it: “There was no plan at all behind it – normally when Government’s calls emergencies, it brings the whole aspect of the state to bear to be able to deal with it.”

Quentin Atkinson, one of the scientist behind the call for a declaration of emergency, also challenges whether the Government has a sufficient plan for dealing with the crisis, saying: “Such a declaration also serves to highlight the hypocrisy of ongoing government policies that are inconsistent with a climate emergency. This is exactly what has happened in the UK, where policies are now being scrutinised in the light of the climate emergency declaration. This is a good thing. Of course, declaring a climate emergency does not in itself solve the challenge we face. We need a real Zero Carbon Act that lives up to its name” – see: We must face climate emergency head-on.

There are some real questions about whether the current Government is doing anywhere enough on climate change. For example, looking at last week’s rather moderate and limited policy announcement on electric vehicles, John Armstrong was scathing, saying it epitomises the “profound lack of urgency” in dealing with climate change under the current administration – see: Jacinda Ardern’s eco-warrior, emissions cutting image is a ‘charade’.

Armstrong argues that the Prime Minister continues to deliver “warm fuzzies” rather than make hard choices: “Ardern constructed an image of herself as some kind of eco-warrior in the front-line of the international crusade against global warming. It is a charade. Jacinda Ardern would like everyone to believe her administration is being bold in its framing of policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But it isn’t.”

Within the Government itself, there is division about whether to characterise the campaign on climate change as an emergency or even a war. Last week the Associate Transport Minister, Julie Anne Genter, tweeted to say climate change was “our generation’s WWII”, which was an escalation of Ardern’s famous statement about it being “our generation’s nuclear-free moment”. The Prime Minister has since stated that she wouldn’t use the same comparison as Genter – see Jamie Ensor’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won’t compare climate change to World War II.

In terms of local government, most authorities appear to be passing emergency declarations – but not all. For example, earlier this month, Environment Southland voted eight-to-four against such a state of emergency. One councillor justified voting against the declaration, saying “The word emergency creates a knee-jerk reaction” and arguing it would create a “siege mentality” – see Blair Jackson’s Southland climate emergency motion voted down.

Similarly, the Thames-Coromandel Council voted six to three against the declaration in April, and now some residents are taking legal action to get this reversed – see Amy Williams’ Council taken to court over lack of action on climate change.

And some of the councils declaring emergencies are now being taken to task for subsequent actions that apparently contradict their gesture. For the best example of this, see Dave Armstrong’s How serious is Wellington about its ‘climate change emergency’? He points to continued attempts by the council to extend the airport runway, promotion of a convention centre as a destination for conferences, and the use of dirty diesel buses as going against the lofty proclamations of an emergency.

Similarly, when the Auckland council passed its climate change emergency motion the mayor had to miss the vote to attend the announcement that one of the world’s biggest retailer, Costco, was about to launch in the city. Simon Wilson asks: “Were the two events – the climate emergency declaration and the Costco deal – by any chance related? The timing might have been coincidental but each has far-reaching implications for the other” – see his in-depth and thoughtful examination of what the emergency declaration might mean for Auckland and its council: Costco vs the climate emergency: planning the future of Auckland (paywalled).

Finally, there’s an ongoing debate within the environmental movement about how to rally the masses to take climate change more seriously without producing a sense of doom. This was raised in a recent debate in which an environmentalist from an NGO published an article suggesting that the type of groups that they had worked for had downplayed the state of the crisis in order not to scare people – see: An apology from an environmentalist.

This got a response from Danyl Mclauchlan, who wrote: The real enemy: Why blaming NGOs for climate inaction is stupid. He explains: “Every piece of research about climate messaging always finds the same thing. If you tell people we’re doomed – which is the apologetic environmentalists message – they’re less likely to take action than if you give them agency and tell them there’s hope.”

Mclauchlan examines the problems of over-egging the crisis of climate change: “some people seem to like declaring that the world is ending and that we’re all about to die. This is a religious impulse not a scientific one, but some activists relish playing the role of end-of-time preacher condemning society to perdition for our consumerist sins.”

Instead of seeing the struggle against climate change as “a binary phenomenon” in which the world is either saved or doomed, he suggests that it’s more like a spectrum of possible outcomes, and therefore the actions taken by humanity will impact on how good or bad the outcomes are. In terms of current efforts by the Government, Mclauchlan – who is a former Green Party activist – is not so impressed: “I’m less optimistic about progress in national politics, and a little staggered by how little progress this government has made on climate issues.”