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'Climate emergency' endangers democracy



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'.

An Extinction Rebellion campaigner waves a flag in Hyde Park in London in April 2019. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)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 in the ER campaign go to gaol simply for symbolism? If the declarations don't mean anything, we should stop calling for them. If they do, we should think through their implications. As Raven Cretney argued recently in Overland, we need to discuss 'what this "state of climate emergency" will look like and — most importantly — to what extent it will allow for democratic participation'.


"It's hard to imagine a society in which humanity no longer treats nature as an enemy without also thinking of one in which democracy and freedom have been massively expanded."


Historically, a declaration of emergency — whether in response to war, civil unrest or natural disaster — allows the state to abolish politics, suppressing debate and discussion so as to enable a militarised response to an urgent problem. You can see why that might appeal, in the abstract, as a solution to the environmental catastrophe. With the major Australian parties unwilling to formulate adequate climate policies, it's tempting to imagine someone cutting through the bullshit to do what needs to be done.

But whom, exactly, would that someone be? We've seen, already, scattered calls for a climate dictatorship, most prominently from the environmental scientist James Lovelock. 'Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being,' he told the Guardian. 'I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.'

Whatever else might be said about such arguments, they totally misunderstand the nature of climate change. You can't suspend politics to tackle the environmental crisis. The environmental crisis is politics. The intensifying degradation of the natural world stems, after all, from an economic system in which the pursuit of profit drives unplanned, exponential growth.

While most of us suffer from climate change, certain corporations have grown dizzyingly wealthy from their role in driving it. We don't all share responsibility for the crisis. We don't all have all the same interest in resolving it. That's why any attempt to separate climate action from democratic struggle must be resisted.

For there is, of course, an obvious rightwing response to the crisis, one that centres on excluding climate refugees, mitigating the suffering of the wealthy and suppressing the protests of the poor, while fighting other nations to profit from the remaining resources.

It's on that basis that the European far right's now taken an interest in environmentalism, with, for instance, Marine Le Pen's National Rally (formerly the National Front) laying out a new policy on climate change. 'Borders are the environment's greatest ally,' explained a spokesperson. '[I]t is through them that we will save the planet.' Obviously, that's not the outcome that Extinction Rebellion wants.

The most exciting aspect of the new environmental resistance is its insistence on grassroots action, with ER calling for ordinary people to take to the streets and put their own bodies on the line. If we're going to resolve the environmental crisis with any measure of justice, we need more of that participation, not less. We need the entire population involved in debating and discussing how the burden of rapid economic and social change might be equitably shared.

As Casey Williams argues, 'refusing a national emergency logic is not a call to "do nothing"; it is an insistence that climate change demands the resuscitation of democratic politics ... It means rethinking political action on the basis of popular mobilisation, not using and then defending the state's most repressive tools.'

You only have to start thinking about genuine solutions to see the point. It's hard to imagine a society in which humanity no longer treats nature as an enemy without also thinking of one in which democracy and freedom have been massively expanded.

Obviously, for most people, the new rhetoric of emergency simply expresses their recognition of the need for urgent action. In that sense, it's entirely to be welcomed. Yet we should guard against those who would use urgency as a pretext for authoritarianism. The response to climate change requires more participation, not a saviour from on high.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: An Extinction Rebellion campaigner waves a flag in Hyde Park in London in April 2019. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, climate change, Extinction Rebellion



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Existing comments

Two questions. 1. If it came to a stark choice, lose democracy or lose the planet, which one would you choose? If your choice is lose the planet, then your caution is valid. If your choice is save the planet, we can always restore democracy at a later date, but the converse does not apply, then you must be prepared to lose the democracy. 2. It is not those who wish to declare a climate emergency who are most likely to steal democracy. As they have demonstrated in the last Federal election campaign, the enemies of the future will say and do anything to prevent the will of the vast majority of the population- to save the planet - being expressed. So the question is, why would you aid and abet the enemies of mankind?

John Saint-Smith | 23 June 2019  

I agree fully with Jeff's argument. The very fact that governments in Australia, USA, China and India do not demonstrate much will to either reduce emissions to prevent, and/or develop plans to mitigate, increasing degrees of climate change, indicates that we cannot risk any government taking emergency measures to 'fight' climate change. 'Fight' because that is what would happen if a climate change emergency were declared, as Jeff has elaborated above. In Australia, North America, and most of Western Europe, some corporations together with many small businesses and much of the general public, are taking steps to reduce emissions. Some in agriculture, grazing, and general farming, are now changing their usage of land and water to accommodate the already changed patterns of seasonal weather. It is only as these public and business responses increase to become the norm, that democratic governments will be pressured to comply with the very clear public demand to follow the people's lead. No, their current behaviour proves we cannot invite governments to enact states of climate emergency. So far, they have proven, they either don't understand and/or don't really care about the already progressing climate change.

Ian Fraser | 23 June 2019  

My son is just back from South America, working in agriculture, he said the seasons have been wetter than average in recent years, Sounded like the El Niño effect to me. Also that people are taking to the streets in large numbers protesting against the corruption associated with the concentration of wealth in the hands of so few. Hence the lack of incentive to develop their natural resources to provide jobs (Adani), that Dom Helder Camara protested about in the 1960's and 70's.

Neville Hunt | 23 June 2019  

Jeff completely leaves out ER's 3rd demand. A democracy fit for purpose I.e. citizens assemblys. We have had 20 in Australia already and they work like jury duty. UK just evoked one.

Violet CoCo | 23 June 2019  

‘Yet we should guard against those who use urgency as a pretext for authoritarianism’. Exactly right, if for no other reason than that, in the long term, authoritarianism just doesn’t work’. No matter how good our intentions are, the imposition of a way of life has never been successful on a species gifted with free will and a healthy degree of stroppiness. The USSR couldn’t make Communism work. The Chinese couldn’t control their population growth by fiat. No nation can impose a total commitment to environmental safety. I don’t want you to panic, whatever the dear young girl says, I want you to stay calm and talk to each other and do your bit. Participate!

Joan Seymour | 23 June 2019  

Climate alarmists rejoice. You are getting a LOT of what you expect from Govts around Australia. We have just travelled from Victoria to South Western Australia, and the number of National Parks that have been reserved is admirable. Add to that-in South Australia a vast army of ugly Wind Turbines thrashing desperately at the breezes flowing over their hilltop perches; and near Tailem Bend a huge area covered with solar panels. Ugly; excessive land used to house these things; how many required to meet our ever-growing demand for power? Joan Seymour the wisest of the comments here. Get out and do your bit. So many travellers leave their litter where ever they go. Clean it up. When you protestors go to your rallies; walk, or ride bikes; take YOUR litter home with you!! When you get your take-away coffees, take a hard mug with you; stop buying bottled water; use cloth, re-useable nappies instead of easy throw-away ones. Stop being wasters. You younger generations are the largest users of natural resources. You have only known consumerism. CHANGE, then come and show us oldies how much you have saved. There, NOW we are talking.

Bruce McFarlane | 24 June 2019  

John Saint-Smith you seem to have missed a couple of main points. That those who would suspend democracy are those who (mainly) got us here in the first place. And that they are not amongst those who would be impacted the most, in fact they may think that unbridled extraction, no matter whether the CO2 ppm is 415 or 928, is in their interests. So the rise of a dictator, a tyrant if you like, will most likely be Putin style. Ask a Russian how that works.

Richard Seager | 28 June 2019  

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