The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
This week, the United Kingdom became the first country to declare a "climate emergency." That action by the British Parliament is either a Big Deal, or an ineffectual symbolic statement -- and perhaps both of them at the same time.
The British declaration, of course, should not be seen in isolation. It fits into broad trends developing around the world. As the headline for an analysis from the economic journal Quartz put it, "We just might be at a tipping point on how seriously the world treats climate change."
Without trying to be comprehensive, I'll touch on some of the factors that seem to be important around this week's declaration.
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Let's start with the "ineffectual symbolic statement" -- because that perspective would be a really depressing way to end up! The opening of one news report was succinct:
The climate change emergency passed by the UK government is a motion rather than legislation and does not change the government's legally binding targets under international accords, such as Paris, or national legislation, such as the Climate Change Act 2008.
The absence of policy changes came up in a typically British exchange during the Parliament's debate. (The way in which MPs interrupt each other is so much more fun than US legislative sessions.) The environment secretary of the Conservative Party spoke in favor of the emergency declaration, saying, "We've led in the past in defence of freedom, let's lead now in defence of our planet."
A member from the Green Party "intervened" in the secretary's speech to ask how his approach could be reconciled with the government's decision to back a third runway at Heathrow airport. (That expansion, which would allow even more climate warping air travel, has been the subject of protests for over 12 years.) The secretary did not reply, prompting shouts from MPs of "Answer the question."
If the "emergency" has no impact on long-term plans that would increase the climate crisis, then the declaration is, at best, symbolic.
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To dismiss the statement as only "symbolic" denies the power of symbols. The US flag is "only a symbol," and the battles about how to honor the flag at the start of sporting events divided the nation. Symbols convey truths that are far deeper than their superficial meaning. A symbolic statement can be a powerful step toward significant action.
At the most basic level, the vote in Parliament puts the government on record. Unlike the US government -- which still clings to denial and distortion in both the White House and the Senate -- this resolution means that "they can't say that they didn't know."
Even without detailed policies, the declaration admits the reality of an urgent climate crisis and the need for dramatic governmental action. While the content of the fairly brief motion names only vague and non-binding goals (including net-zero carbon emissions by 2050), I'm sure that the declaration will be invoked often in future, more specific debates about British climate policies. The symbolic statement will have power in efforts for binding actions in the near future.
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It would be very surprising if the British parliament raised the idea of a climate emergency all on its own, and took such a vote without strong pressure and leadership from other sources. This one highly-visible resolution is better seen as one expression of a growing movement.
Within Great Britain, the organized effort to "Declare a Climate Emergency" now names 59 declarations by boroughs, cities and counties, with 42 of those setting a target date for net-zero emissions of 2030. The groundswell of local declarations in the UK -- with most coming after last fall's urgent report from the United Nations -- set the stage for this week's vote at the national level.
Similar movements focused on emergency declarations are happening in other countries. One website lists eight emergency advocacy groups currently at work in Australia. The Climate Mobilization is involved in emergency declarations in several countries, especially the US. Their tally records over 450 local governments, encompassing 40 million people, that have declared a climate emergency. Since the Climate Mobilization's mission "is to initiate a WWII-scale mobilization to protect humanity and the natural world from climate catastrophe," it is obvious that the "symbolic" declaration of an emergency is seen, not as an end in itself, but as a first step toward detailed mobilization.
Indeed, votes on a climate emergency need to be seen as a relatively easy first step in responding to larger political pressures. CNN wrote that the British vote "comes a week after 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg addressed UK lawmakers to demand more climate action, and in the wake of protests by climate action group Extinction Rebellion, who blocked major landmarks in London." The BBC tells us that Extinction Rebellion "wants a new legally binding target set for the UK to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2025" -- a far more challenging goal than the declaration's non-binding target of 2050.
The UK emergency declaration is one indicator of a political groundswell in Britain and around the world where local and national governments are facing intense pressure to acknowledge the climate crisis, and to get to work on clear and binding policies.
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CNN quotes Greta Thunberg, "We cannot solve an emergency without treating it like an emergency." It would be a mistake, though, to say that we have to declare an emergency in order to solve the emergency.
There are many bodies -- governmental, businesses, and civic groups -- that are defining goals for climate action and working urgently for dramatic change, but without insisting on the specific language of a "climate emergency." 23 US states and the District of Columbia have implemented statewide greenhouse gas targets for reduced carbon emissions, with varying targets.
In my home state of Colorado, the legislature this week passed "the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, " HB 19-1261. That bill acknowledges the IPCC's named goal of holding temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, but the actual goals specified for reducing greenhouse gas emissions would point toward a 2 degree rise by 2100. (Eco-Justice Ministries is a member of the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, which lobbied hard for more stringent goals. We'll be back in the statehouse to work for a revision of those goal in next year's legislative session.)
It is encouraging that states and local communities, and now nations, are declaring a climate emergency. It is even more important to see that climate action is taking place without that specific label being declared.
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We can capture the spirit of a familiar saying from the New Testament letter of James about faith and works. (James 2:14) "What good is it if you have an emergency declaration but do not have works? Can a declaration save you?"
If a declaration is just words, if it is only a symbolic statement and goes no farther, then what happened in the British parliament this week has little meaning, or is even a dangerous distraction.
But if that declaration, and other emergency declarations around the world, and a multitude of other actions that don't include the word "emergency," are evidence of a rapidly growing awareness of the real climate crisis, then these actions are hopeful good news. These statements and policies show that we "just might be at a tipping point" in how the world treats climate change.
If we're at that tipping point, then a strong push in any and all institutions can lead to that tip into a new and dramatically different realm of awareness and action. Let's live in hope and expectation, and keep up the good work.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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