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What is a Climate Emergency? 

The concept of a ‘Climate Emergency’ and the ‘Climate Mobilisation Movement’ were first described in a paper Published in April 2016 by psychologist Dr Margaret Klein-Salamon. She and the activist groups that have joined the Climate Mobilisation movement, such as the Extinction Rebellion, School Strike 4 Climate and the Sunrise Movement define their objectives as: 

“Our goal is for governments to declare a climate emergency and mobilise society-wide resources at sufficient scale and speed to protect civilisation, the economy, people, species, and ecosystems (from the climate crisis).” 

Key elements of the goal as they describe them are: 

“Building public awareness that we are in a climate emergency which threatens life as we know it.” 

“Demanding that governments declare a climate emergency as a public signal indicating that governments and society will be mobilised in emergency mode until the emergency passes.” ; and

“Demanding a climate mobilisation of sufficient scale and speed to protect everything we want to protect.

Recently Prof Joseph Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001, voiced his support for a WWII-style climate emergency mobilisation, saying ‘the climate emergency is our third world war’. 

The level of urgency in addressing the climate crisis that these groups are calling for is justified. Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are now higher than any time in the last 3 million years, and annual global emissions continue to increase as a result of human activities. The world is currently on course to be four degrees hotter than pre-industrial times by 2100, a situation that would regularly make outdoor conditions in the tropics lethal to humans without the protection of air-conditioning, massively reduce global food production and cause multi-metre sea level rise that would inundate large areas of human settlement. This scale of climate disruption has a significant probability of leading to dramatic reductions in population along with global civilisation and eco-system collapse. The probability of this outcome will increase as long as net emissions of greenhouse gases continue. 

Who has declared a climate emergency? 

The first government body to declare a ‘climate emergency’ was the municipality of Darebin in Melbourne, Australia in December 2016. As of May 2019, 594 jurisdictions in 13 countries have declared a climate emergency. Populations covered by jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency amount to 70 million citizens, with 33 million of these living in the United Kingdom. During May and June 2019 in New Zealand, Nelson City Council, Kāpiti Coast District Council, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury, Auckland Council and Wellington City Council have declared climate emergencies. Other councils are also planning to make declarations.

On Thursday 20 June 2018, Wellington City Council declared an ecological and climate emergency as it adopted a blueprint for becoming a zero carbon city by 2050. Mayor Justin Lester and Cr Iona Pannett said:  

  • It means the Council will put protection of our environment and climate change at the front and centre of its decision-making.

  • Wellington City Council accepts the best scientific evidence that we must now step up and take further action asclimate change bites.

  • Four out of five people, who submitted on the plan for a Zero Carbon City by 2050, want the target reached earlier and there was a lot of support for better active and public transport; nature and green space; and a zero-emissions fleet.

  • People are saying they want us to flip the transport system on its head – we need to change the fundamentals of the way we move.

  • TheDeclaration should be seen as a symbol of hope and a response to the thousands of Wellingtonians who have called for action on climate 

  • WCC will be making greener, low-carbon options easy for people to use, such as better options for recycling and composting and transport, such as walking, cycling and mass transit and  transport; planning for denser living and building strong, resilient buildings.

  • WCC will look at investing in a fund to protect infrastructure from sea level rise, planting more trees to absorb increased rainfall and better buying policies to buy more green goods such as electric vehicles.

Does Climate Change Qualify as an “Emergency”?

Some people argue that because the dictionary definition of "emergency" includes a "situation requiring immediate action", this does not apply to climate change. I beg to differ. A metaphor for a climate change emergency might be a super-tanker heading for the rocks. The reason super-tankers take so long to stop is the huge amount of momentum they build up as they sail. If the captain becomes aware the ship is heading for the rocks, it takes about 25km for it to stop. So even though the disaster is some distance away e.g. 25 km, emergency action ( i.e. turn the rudder or stop the engines) is required immediately to avoid a catastrophe.

The international authority, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC) said in its seminal report in October 2018 that the global community has got only 12 years left to limit a climate catastrophe (that is, it will be too late because of the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to keep global warming to less than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial times - that is only 0.5 degrees C above the current level of warming). See Guardian report.

And in my super-tanker analogy, the global, national, regional and  local communities need to be taking "emergency" action now to avoid "hitting the rocks" in about 12 years. The actions by Councils in Declarations of Climate Emergencies are welcome and timely.

Declarations of Climate Change Emergency



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