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'Climate emergency' endangers democracy

  • 21 June 2019


Each day, the environmental news gets worse. A record heatwave in the state of Bihar in India has killed 184 people, with temperatures over 40 degrees for 32 days. Greenland's ice has started melting earlier and faster than ever before, while the most recent summer in Australia was the hottest ever recorded. Not surprisingly, we're increasingly hearing the situation described as an 'emergency'.

The term now occupies a central place in the strategies of many environmentalists. The civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion, for instance, lists as one of its key demands the need for 'the government to tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency'. Along similar lines, the Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation group wants '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'.

In early May, the UK became the first national government to formally declare an emergency. This week, Hobart recognised 'a climate and biodiversity emergency', the first Australian capital city to do so. By one count, some 83 million people now live the 623 jurisdictions in 13 countries that have made similar gestures. Yet though I've used the 'climate emergency' slogan myself, I now worry about its implications.

For the most part, activists use such rhetoric to invoke the huge mobilisations undertaken by all the combatant nations during the Second World War. The conflict spurred governments to restructure with extraordinary speed, subordinating other priorities to the needs of the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, for instance, the United States transformed production with such rapidity that, two years later, some two thirds of the economy had been integrated into the war effort.

It's an obvious historical referent for climate activists. The difference between the Australia of 1939 and the Australia of 1945 proves that, under the right circumstances, massive social and economic change can take place very quickly indeed.

Yet we can't use that analogy without considering its implications. The declaration of wartime emergency meant, almost everywhere, a suspension of certain liberties and a corresponding expansion of state power. That was, in fact, the point of such declarations: they allowed governments to ban strikes, implement censorship, prosecute pacifists and do whatever else they deemed necessary to win the war. Is that what we want today?

It might be objected that today's declarations constitute symbolic gestures, nothing more. But why should people