The global landscape of local climate emergency declarations
The first climate emergency declaration in Darebin in 2016 was followed by declarations in the US cities of Hoboken, New Jersey (April 2018), and Berkeley, California (June 2018), which in turn set the precedent for a wave of worldwide declarations in 2019. While there is limited literature that discusses the effectiveness of these early emergency declarations as tools for local climate action, Darebin council’s invocation (in their declaration text) of the fact that ‘we’ are in a state of climate emergency offers an important conceptual starting point. Who is the ‘we’ in question here? And what role is being played (intentionally and unintentionally) by such modest, local actors provocatively sounding the alarm on global climate change?
The language used to address climate change has been constantly changing over the past two decades, reflecting both an evolution in the perceived urgency of the challenge and a grappling for the right way to represent it as an urgent problem needing to be solved. The emergence of ‘climate crisis’ and the subsequent prevalence of ‘climate emergency’ is an example of this. Notably, there was a surge in the use of the term ‘climate crisis’ between 2006 and mid-2008 worldwide (much less pronounced in the UK), and the use of ‘climate emergency’ rose significantly from mid-2019 onwards, particularly in the UK. Illustrating its rise to prominence, ‘climate emergency’ was named the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2019 when its use rose by 10796% (Zhou 2019). Their definition of a climate emergency is:
a situation in which immediate action is needed to reduce or stop climate change and prevent serious and permanent damage to the environment. (Oxford English Dictionary 2020)
According to Spratt and Sutton (2008), this movement to ‘emergency’ language is likely due to the fact that emergencies are a form of crisis requiring action well beyond business as usual. Despite over 40 years of warnings from scientists, there has been widespread failure to address climate change (Ripple et al. 2020). Spratt and Sutton (2008) thus highlight that the use of emergency language is the start of a movement towards more drastic action, accurately predicting that this would climax in the formal climate emergency declarations of governments. Similarly, in considering the legal implications of a ‘climate emergency’, Lindsay (2010) argues that emergency language implies the formal use of emergency government or ‘state of emergency’ to tackle the issue. Hence, an emergency is characterised by recognition that a threat is large enough to demand a mobilisation of resources and requires the engagement of governments to coordinate and administer a rapid response. Declaring a sustainability or climate emergency signals that governments and communities need to cooperate and act with speed, on a large scale (Spratt and Sutton 2008). ‘Emergency’ discourse therefore enables the communication of the sense of urgency with which we must act in response to the inaction we have seen preceding this language shift.
At the international scale, the IPCC’s, Global Warming of 1.5°C ( 2019a) report is often considered to be the catalyst for the explosion of emergency declarations in 2019 although it makes no explicit reference to ‘climate emergency’ or ‘crisis’. However, this report was widely used as a platform for catalysing an emergency response to the threat of climate change. For example, Extinction Rebellion frequently cites the report in their factsheets for supporters and media campaigns (Extinction Rebellion 2018a, 2018b). The IPCC meanwhile avoid using emergency rhetoric in order to align with their aim to refrain from being politically prescriptive, instead of describing climate change in terms of risk. The 2018 UNEP Emissions Gap Report played a similar role (Allen 2019; Asayama et al. 2019; Cretney and Nissen 2019; Hulme 2019; Rode 2019); however, while unofficial publications have consistently adopted an ‘emergency’ rhetoric (UNEP 2019; 2020a, 2020b, 2020c), official publications made by UNEP avoid the term. This could reflect the different audiences that UNEP’s official and unofficial publications are aimed at, for example, policymakers in the former and concerned citizens in the latter. Unlike UNEP, the IPCC has also avoided using ‘emergency’ rhetoric in unofficial publications (e.g. blogs, news articles), with the most demanding call for action being calls to ‘urgently’ reduce greenhouse gases (IPCC 2019b).
The relationship between scales of authority and the commitment to (a) political interpretations of climate change and the threat posed has important implications for how we understand proposed ‘solutions’ subsequently put forward. The question we must ask is where does the lack of a requisite ‘global’ authority (able to be mapped onto the scale of the challenge posed by climate change) leave local authorities?
Framing local declarations of a global emergency
In the past two decades, global governance of climate change has become increasingly fragmented and decentralised, taking the form of a ‘regime complex’ made up of numerous loosely coupled regimes (Keohane and Victor 2011). Consequently, action taken against climate change must be examined with respect to the various different contexts that they operate in, namely: international organisations, national-level governance and local-level governance. Differentiating between parts of the climate regime along these lines is by no means final or clear cut. Furthermore, the multilevel governance literature shows that regimes are often overlapping and actions in one regime do not occur in isolation of the others (Di Gregorio et al. 2019). With the 2015 Paris Agreement setting a precedent for this increasingly polycentric approach (Jordan et al. 2018), actors at the subnational level (with an emphasis on cities and their governments in particular) are expected to play a greater role in climate governance (Van der Heijden 2018).
Despite this increasing emphasis on sub-national engagement with climate change (Schlosberg et al. 2017; Sotto et al. 2019), the invocation of an emergency discourse at this scale raises a number of questions. Firstly, a great deal of theoretical work has been done to unpack the way in which a discourse of ‘emergency’ is drawn upon by governments to justify interventionist decisions which circumvent normal democratic checks and balances during times of ‘exception’ (Agamben 2008). To date, however, this has principally focused on national-scale governments with the ability to wield substantial resource bases in the face of external ‘threats’ (Bandt 2009; Calhoun 2010). Secondly, these resources are generally wielded in order to mitigate the risk posed by perceived threats to the sovereignty of the government in question (Humphreys 2006). When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, then, and its global nature and seemingly existential threat to life on Earth, it is difficult to create the requisite separation between the threat and the threatened. Rather than having spatial characteristics with the potential to undermine sovereign states, climate change has temporal ones, threatening populations of the future. As a result, local emergency declarations must be situated in the broader landscape of the shifts in governance required to deal with the unique nature of the threat. However, while the requirement for action has become normalised, there has been little progress in articulating what exactly those actions will look like and who will be responsible for driving them.
The traditional notion of what counts as an emergency has recently been broadened with the concept of the ‘slow emergency’ (Anderson et al. 2019). This concept shares similarities with the political economy concept of ‘slow violence’, whereby environmental damage causes insidious, slow-burning social harms, often against the poorest and most marginalised communities (Nixon 2011). Appreciating the ‘slow’ nature of emergencies aims to shift academic study of emergency from how life is governed towards the emergency claims and acts made by marginalized people from within situations of ‘attritional lethality’ (Anderson et al. 2019, p627). Anderson et al. argue that emergencies are a way that communities, including environmentalists in the 2019 climate protests, render the impacts and effects of slow emergencies as sensible and accountable (p634). While the timescales in question help us appreciate the value of framing anthropogenic climate change as a ‘slow emergency’, the effects of which are both nascent and distributed in complex ways, this raises a number of issues regarding the governance responsibilities associated with such emergencies.
The local nature of declarations of a planetary-scale emergency, as well as the way in which such declarations have proliferated across the world via local governments before being embraced at the national and international levels serves to demonstrate what Castan Broto (2020) describes as the ‘messiness’ of climate governance. With both an appreciation for the severity of the climate challenge and the will to do something about it so politically fragmented, we might see it as inevitable that such an ostensibly grand challenge was able to trickle down to the smallest scales of government before finding a voice. Much of the existing literature on local and urban climate governance, however, remains cautious to narratives of local climate saviours stepping into a national and global action vacuum, questioning the validity of such claims against the backdrop of dominant political-economic regimes (Angelo and Wachsmuth 2020; Van der Heijden 2019).
In the context of the UK, such reservations seem well founded given recent commentary on the failure of the national government to adequately devolve the required resources in the post-declaration era (Green World 2020). Furthermore, as argued by Castan Broto (2020), narratives of action against climate change rooted in particular places sit uneasily with the seemingly ‘mobile’, place-agnostic nature of existing climate change policy mechanisms. Perhaps, such as the recently proliferated emergency declarations, which, as we have discussed here, have travelled between and through local jurisdictions around the world and which—through the case of London— will now form the focus of the paper’s empirical contribution.