In the No 1 Motown hit song War, Edwin Starr asserts that war is good for “absolutely nothing”. So too could this be said of climate change. Yet, while the evidence has been widely published and publicised, it is only recently that the frustration with the lack of international political commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has mobilised the public to take to the streets. The convenors of the “global strike” (called on September 20-27) have stated that “the climate crisis is an emergency but we’re not acting like it”.
Recent shifts in the language to include “climate emergency” and “climate crisis”, have been an attempt to change the language and understanding and to elevate the seriousness of the situation. But does this shift in language really make a difference?
Climate emergencies have been declared by local and national governments around the world, in a movement that is increasingly gaining momentum. The City of Sydney has declared a climate emergency, as have Melbourne, Hobart, and a number of smaller local council areas.
And the Greens have committed to introducing a declaration of emergency to the Australian Parliament before the end of the year. This is a trend replicated across the world, with even the British Parliament, willing to declare “climate emergency”.
But, has using the terms climate crisis or climate emergency shifted governments into action? The recent watering down by Australia of the Tuvalu Declaration on Climate Change for the Survival of Pacific Small Islands Developing States (signed by the Small Island States) resulting in the Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Action Now (issued by the Pacific Island Forum), for example, would suggest not.
In response to the urgency of climate change, the United Nation Secretary General convened a Global Climate Summit for world leaders on the 23 September 2019. However, the Prime Minister of Australia chose not to attend and sent the foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the Australian ambassador for the environment, Patrick Suckling, instead – hardly a recognition of its importance.
However, these emergency declarations are not acts of Parliament that legally bind the government to do certain things, but rather they create the framing and context for governments to act.
The use of the term climate emergency has recently been embraced to emphasise the urgency and seriousness of the climate change impacts. An emergency can be defined as a situation that poses an immediate risk, and organisations or governments have some experience dealing with such events, such as drought or floods, and have trained staff to implement emergency response and disaster recovery plans.
In contrast to these national level declarations, the states of the Pacific have issued an international declaration using the language of a “crisis”.
A crisis, is a crucial or decisive point or situation that could lead to a tipping point. The novelty around these incidents makes them much more difficult to respond to and deal with. Regina Phelps, suggests that generally crises have the following characteristics:
- The threat has never been encountered before, so there are no plans in place to manage it.
- It may be a familiar event, however, it is occurring at unprecedented speed or frequency, so developing an appropriate response is challenging.
- There may be a confluence of forces, which, while not new individually, in combination pose unique challenges to the response.
The climate science reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would suggest that the above three points are the situation that we now find ourselves, in other words an unprecedented circumstance or climate crisis. The recorded increase in climate related disasters around the world would support such a claim. Nations in Pacific for example, have been, and will continue, to bear the brunt of climate change impacts due to sea-level rise, more severe and frequent storms and cyclones and in some areas reduced rainfall.
The Pacific Islands are fighting
The slogan “we are not drowning, we are fighting” was launched in 2013 to dispel the common perception that Pacific Islands are drowning from sea-level rise, and is gaining a louder voice.
While it’s true that some islands are suffering from storm surges and inundation, and that in the coming decades, sea-level rise will challenge the existence of the low-lying atoll nations and coastal areas of any island, it’s not yet time to give up on the Islands.
The Pacific Islands are changing the narrative from drowning and victimisation, to building the power to fight the fossil fuel industry, and climate change.
This approach may have been a driving force behind the recent thinking of Pacific States, and would suggest that the use of the term climate crisis should shift the focus on avoiding the crisis through greenhouse gas mitigation efforts, and not merely responding to the crisis through adaptation (and the associated redirected aid budgets).
At the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), we were witness to Australia pushing hard to ensure that their continued use of coal powered electricity and coal exports were not threatened, despite the impassioned calls from the Pacific Island states and their reasoning based on the crisis situation.
Specifically, this was evident in this watering down of the statement on emissions reduction to exclude the call on “relevant parties to the Kyoto Protocol to refrain from using ‘carryover credits’ as an abatement for the additional Paris Agreement emissions reduction targets”, and the removal of the clause calling “on all parties to take immediate measures to relinquish the subsidies to fossil fuel production and use.
The lack of tangible steps through policies and regulations by governments will see little prospect of the climate crisis being averted, with further climate emergencies being declared in disaster prone areas.
Prof Pierre Mukheibir, Professor of Water Futures, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Patricia Mallam is Senior Communications Specialist, Pacific Region for 350.org.
Pierre Mukheibir does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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