In a matter of months, the language of climate emergency has exploded into public space in a spectacular way, with national, regional and governments adopting the term.
Last Friday The Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner issued new language guidelines to her staff:
Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favoured over “global warming”, although the original terms are not banned. “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity”… The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, talked of the “climate crisis” in September, adding: “We face a direct existential threat.”
Just a year ago, such language was rarely, if ever, heard in the media, among politicians and policymakers, or from professional climate advocates. So how did we get to here?
The origins of the idea that we are in a climate emergency (as a problem statement) and that we need to declare and act on this climate emergency in a mobilisation of unprecedented scale in peacetime (solutions strategy) go back at least 16 years.
The US environmental analyst Lester Brown advocated “climate action on the scope of the WWII mobilization” in his 2003 book Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, and in subsequent editions. Whilst not using the language of “climate emergency”, Al Gore in a 2006 essay The Moment of Truth, and in his film An Inconvenient Truth, urged the world to take the threat of climate change no less seriously than the threat of the Nazis during World War II to face the “global emergency”.
The term “climate emergency” was popularised by David Spratt and Philip Sutton in a 2007 report and subsequently in their June 2008 book Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action. The book argued that we must “devote as much of the world’s economic capacity as is necessary, as quickly as possible, to this climate emergency. If we do not do enough, and do not do it fast enough, we are likely to create a world in which far fewer species, and a lot less people, will survive… Declaring a climate and sustainability emergency is not just a formal measure or an empty political gesture, but an unambiguous reflection of a government’s and people’s commitment to intense and large-scale action. It identifies the highest priority to which sufficient resources will be applied in order to succeed.”
In a moving culmination of Australia’s first grassroots Climate Action Summit, 2500 people formed a human chain around Parliament House on the first day of parliament in Canberra in February 2009 to send a “climate emergency” message to the government (see photo). Although the large professional climate advocacy organisations in Australia consistently refused to use the term “climate emergency”, claiming it was bad framing and emphasised the wrong values, a network of grassroots climate groups and activists set out to wake up the world to the fact that climate disruption was actually an emergency, demanding emergency action as the only rational response.
Climate Code Red was the spark for Climate Safety: In case of emergency…published in November 2008 in the UK by the Public Interest Research Centre and launched at an event with Greens Party leader Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot, Jeremy Leggett, Prof. Kevin Anderson and Tim Helweg-Larsen.
In 2011, Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption laid out the reasons to “address the emergency with the commitment of our response to WWII and begin a real transformation to a sustainable economy”. This was a followup to his November 2009 The One Degree War Plan essay with Jorgen Randers that said it was time to “declare a global emergency and mobilise all available resources, political will and human ingenuity towards one task”, catastrophic climate change.
With increasingly sombre news from the scientific community, awareness of the need for a qualitatively higher level of action grew. “We are now at a tipping point that threatens to flip the world into a full blown climate emergency,” wrote Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands political leader, Kelly Rigg and Mary Robinson, the former President Republic of Ireland, in November 2013.
From 2015, the Breakthrough think-tank in Melbourne, Australia began a publishing programme to build understanding of the case for recognising the climate emergency, emphasising the understatement of the real climate risk by policymakers, the IPCC and most advocates.
In September 2014, The Climate Mobilization (TCM) was launched in the USA by Margaret Salamon Klein and Ezra Silk, calling for governmental climate action on the scale of the World War II mobilization to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which was detailed in 2016 in Silk’s TCM Victory Plan and Klein’s Leading the Public into Emergency Mode. TCM drew on the work of Gilding and Brown on mobilisation, and on the climate emergency proposals developed in Australia. TCM’s advocacy resulted in a climate mobilisation resolution being included in the Democratic Party’s platform for the 2016 Presidential election.
In June 2018, before the US Congressional primaries, Justice Democrat candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signed TCM’s pledge to champion climate mobilization; in October, TCM proposed to Ocasio-Cortez that she “introduce a climate emergency declaration into Congress as a first step toward shifting America into a wartime-level mobilization in response to the accelerating climate crisis.” She subsequently championed the Green New Deal.
In Australia, grassroots activists promoted sign-on statements for politicians and candidates at all levels of government to declare their climate emergency support. This led to the City of Darebin, in Melbourne’s inner north, becoming the first council in the world to recognise the climate emergency in December 2016, as part of an international campaign focused on local government. In the US, such work by TCM led to Montgomery County Council being the first council in that country to follow suit, in December 2017, and subsequently others including the City and County of San Francisco.
In the UK, a campaign initiated by The Greens Party, and subsequently supported by Extinction Rebellion (XR), resulted in more than a hundred councils — starting with Bristol City Council and including the City of London — very rapidly supporting the climate emergency approach, starting in November 2018. XR also drew inspiration from the work of TCM to make local declarations and climate emergency a key part of their strategy and November 2018 protests in London.
A separate initiative in Canada led to councils covering more than 10 million people to declare a climate emergency (“la déclaration d’urgence climatique”), starting in August 2018.
As of 19 May 2019, 548 councils with 64 million constituents in 12 countries had adopted the climate emergency language, though the meanings attached to the term vary, from full societal mobilisation to statements of increased ambition, though a general common thread is a goal of zero emissions by 2030, and often a call for large-scale drawdown.
The use of the term “climate emergency” exploded in late 2018 following its use by StudentsStrikers4Climate around the world and Greta Thunberg’s brutally direct language, the rapidly growing climate emergency local government campaigns, its adoption by Extinction Rebellion, and the enormous response in the US, and internationally, to the Green New Deal.
In a flurry in April-May 2019, parliaments or party leaders in the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Catalonia, and in the ACT in Australia, adopted the term, though the intent is not always clear; it ranges from a genuine emergency approach, to a statement of higher ambition, to what sometimes appears to be not much more than a verbal bowing to popular sentiment.
Research from The Australia Institute published in April 2019 found that a clear majority of Australians agree the nation “is facing a climate emergency” requiring emergency action and that, in response, governments should “mobilise all of society” like they did during the world wars.
Quite suddenly and in an extraordinary manner, the term is now common use, with newspaper headlines and editorials devoted to the subject, and is a part of the everyday language of politicians, journalists and climate activists, though with a diffuse meaning.
Turning those words into a genuine climate emergency plan and mobilisation by governments around the world is now a big task, but the only strategy that matches ambition to the scale of the problem. Calling a spade a spade is an important step forward.