I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon

The pros and cons of playing the crisis game

By David Salt

Quick, this is an emergency! Do Something!

How do I know it’s an emergency? Because everyone is telling me it is*.

The Australian Medical Association has formally declared climate change a health emergency.

The City of Sydney has just declared a climate emergency (following in Hobart’s footsteps). Indeed, around the world some 660 local governments have made similar declarations.

A few months ago a bipartisan UK Parliament passed a national declaration of an Environment and Climate Emergency (with Canada doing the same soon afterwards).

In Australia there are calls for a conscience vote by the parliamentary representatives for a declaration of a climate emergency but, predictably, both major political parties are resisting. However, pressure is mounting with the Greens tabling a petition of 125,000 people asking the Parliament to declare one.

Crisis talk

Why bother invoking a climate emergency?

Partly it’s because some people feel events are suggesting things have gone way beyond ‘normal’. It is now an emergency.

Partly it’s because some people want our elected representatives to start signalling that they see climate change as being a higher priority than they currently do.

And, given these motivations, some people just want something to be done. Stop talking and do something.

Crises in the past have served to bring on action. Indeed, sometimes a good crisis can galvanise a nation. The bombing of Pearl Harbour, for example, transformed overnight a war-phobic USA into a unified fighting machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.

Calling an emergency signals that special effort needs to be taken to deal with an extra-ordinary situation. It mobilises resources and public sentiment. It ‘allows’ a government to assume more control, often overriding individual freedoms that exist when things are normal. Indeed, I suspect this is one of many reasons conservatives are so loathe to accept the situation we are facing is a crisis. Because to do so leads to constraints on personal freedoms.

Take care when crying ‘crisis’

Climate change is big. Indeed it’s one of the biggest threats facing our species. But does labelling it a ‘crisis’ or an ‘emergency’ really assist us in dealing with it?

David Holmes from Monash University recently set out six reasons why a national climate emergency is not a realistic or helpful option in Australia. Among these, he says it would require bipartisan support (which clearly it lacks), the term ‘climate emergency’ doesn’t mean much to many Australians and no-one trusts politicians. (This lack of trust is especially significant since our Prime Minister visited the UN and told the world a highly misleading and cherry-picked set of facts about Australia’s efforts on climate change).

Beyond Australia’s specific context, I’d put forward five generic reasons why care needs to be taken with crying ‘crisis’.

1. It prevents a calibrated response.
Where do you go once you’ve announced an ‘emergency’? It’s kind of the end of ‘normal’. It often leads the media and government struggling to come up with ways of describing the magnitude of the problem or response. Last year we described the crisis of the fish deaths on the Darling simply as the ‘mass fish kill event’. This year, with the same event looming, we’re told to prepare ourselves for a fish Armageddon!

2. It normalises crisis
And if it’s an emergency this year, what happens when things get worse next year. Is it like emergency plus (maybe that’s what an Armageddon is)? People will just begin thinking that emergency is really business as usual. I find it’s a similar problem when trying to engage people on climate change by discussing how our weather is ‘record breaking’. Yes, they say, we’ve been breaking records each year for much of the past decade. Breaking records is now normal.

3. It causes people to give up
Emergencies promote uncertainty and sometimes even panic. Events are clearly beyond our capacity to deal with them. This leads to anxiety, depression and fatalism (with many people actually declaring they won’t have kids because of the declining state of the world). Indeed, it often induces a form of paralysis.

4. It encourages citizens to not take responsibility
Individuals are often overwhelmed in an emergency and expect higher authorities (usually the government) to take over. In some ways an emergency signals ‘this is not my problem, it’s the governments’ or maybe some other higher power (especially when you start invoking Armageddon).

5. It doesn’t provide a constructive way forward
I’ve spoken before about how people deal with the perception of an existential crisis, an event so big it threatens our very identity. Most people give up and withdraw into nihilism, retreat into fundamentalism or, the constructive option, get into activism. Unfortunately I think too much crisis talk creates nihilists or fundementalists.

Dream on

Several years ago the political economist Anthony Giddens observed that “Martin Luther King did not stir his audience in 1963 by declaiming ‘I have a nightmare’.” Similarly, it concerns me that invoking climate change as an emergency may shut down people more than causing them to believe they can make a difference.

Consequently, I think we need to always be talking about where hope may lie as the shadows of climate change darken. To that end I’d like to finish with six sentences of hope recently penned by Richard Flanagan, one of Australia’s finest authors. He put these words to paper (in an article in The Guardian) because he sought to escape the sense of futility that seems to be settling on us as our government continues to shirk its responsibilities on climate change. He said:
“1. We [the general community] believe Australia can be an affirming light in a time of despair, a global leader in transitioning to a carbon-free and socially just society, and that is why we wish our government to –
2. Work with Australian land managers to stop land clearing, protect existing forests and grow new forests to absorb existing carbon pollution.
3. Work with Australian farmers and graziers to make farming carbon neutral.
4. Work with Australian miners to ensure a transition into 21st century minerals (nickel, rare earth) and end thermal coalmining and gas fracking in Australia.
5. Work with Australian regulators to make all Australian ground transport powered by renewable energy by 2030.
6. Work with Australian industry to make Australia a renewable energy giant and carbon-neutral economy by 2050, funded by progressive pollution tariffs on global heaters.”

So, while I agree that climate change is now a real and present crisis, declaring it an emergency and leaving it at that is insufficient and, indeed, may be counterproductive. If like me you think there’s a crisis but don’t want to conjure up nightmares, you could demand your government representatives to take our situation seriously, but at the same time make sure you put forward constructive and possible alternatives to business as usual.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*Measuring climate change: Actually, I don’t need to be told it’s a climate emergency. I can see it in every news bulletin be it Australia’s fire season getting underway in a devastating manner in September, unprecedented hurricanes ravaging the Bahamas, and the Amazon burning before our very eyes.

And, not only can I see the direct impacts of climate change, I also accept the reports of the World’s leading scientific institutions. Let me reprint here the summary findings of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report on the Global Climate from 2015-2019. This report, hot of the press, brings together measurements made by thousands of scientists using multiple technologies over many years, and it all paints the same picture.

Given this evidence and our government’s steadfast refusal to respond with appropriate urgency, is it any wonder everyone is calling for an emergency to be proclaimed?

The Global Climate in 2015-2019
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

Warmest five-year period on record: The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record. It is currently estimated to be 1.1°Celsius (± 0.1°C) above pre-industrial (1850–1900) times. Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts on socio-economic development and the environment.

Continued decrease of sea ice and ice mass: Arctic summer sea-ice extent has declined at a rate of approximately 12% per decade during 1979-2018. The four lowest values for winter sea-ice extent occurred between 2015 and 2019. Overall, the amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold between 1979 and 2017. Glacier mass loss for 2015-2019 is the highest for any five-year period on record.

Sea-level rise is accelerating; sea water is becoming more acidic: The observed rate of global mean sea-level rise accelerated from 3.04 millimeters per year (mm/yr) during the period 1997–2006 to approximately 4mm/yr during the period 2007–2016. This is due to the increased rate of ocean warming and melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets. There has been an overall increase of 26% in ocean acidity since the beginning of the industrial era.

Record Greenhouse Gas Concentrations in the Atmosphere: Levels of the main long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4)) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have reached new highs. The last time Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 parts per million CO2 was about 3-5 million years ago, when global mean surface temperatures were 2-3°C warmer than today, ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, parts of East Antarctica ice had retreated, all causing global see level rise of 10-20m compared with today.

In 2018, global CO2 concentration was 407.8 parts per million (ppm), 2.2 ppm higher than 2017. Preliminary data from a subset of greenhouse gas monitoring sites for 2019 indicate that CO2 concentrations are on track to reach or even exceed 410 parts per million (ppm) by the end of 2019. In 2017, globally averaged atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were 405.6 ±0.1 ppm, CH4) at 1859 ±2 parts per billion (ppb) and N2O at 329.9 ±0.1 ppb. These values constitute, respectively, 146%, 257% and 122% of pre-industrial levels (pre-1750). The growth rate of CO2 averaged over three consecutive decades (1985–1995, 1995–2005 and 2005–2015) increased from 1.42 ppm/yr to 1.86 ppm/yr and to 2.06 ppm/yr

https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/landmark-united-science-report-informs-climate-action-summit

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