600 climate emergency declarations: the emergence of a global referendum

600 climate emergency declarations by local governments are the beginning of what could be a global referendum on climate action

This week I received an email from Janine O’Keeffe titled ‘Climate Emergency Declarations and fear for democracy’ with this question:

“Hi Mik,
Some countries have fears about the climate emergency declarations being used for non-democratic purposes. Can this include democratic mobilisation of resources?”

I replied:

First of all there is a language detail in the English language which many people are not aware of.

To declare a ‘STATE OF emergency’ often means to implement non-democratic measures in a society. The intention with this is to be able to make fast decisions from top down, which can be life-saving considering the emergency situation. But it can of course also be misused, as we have seen the American president Trump do it just to get his wall built on the border to Mexico.

But to “declare an emergency” (without the “state of”) is something different, in legal terms. This is simply a motion or a resolution by an authority or body acknowledging that we are in an emergency now, and we should therefore act accordingly. More precisely how this action can and should take place is then expressed and decided in a similar manner as any other decisions are made in that particular chamber, parliament or board, which makes the declaration.

In other words, there is nothing to be afraid of in respect to democratic procedures being overruled. If the climate emergency declaration, motion or resolution is carried, it will be on the basis on a majority vote. And every other decision that may follow from this declaration later on, will also have to be voted on according to normal, democratic procedures.

Slow-building referendum on climate emergency
But… when talking about democracy, there is something else which is really interesting and potentially much more important to be aware of in the context of why the climate crisis is such a wicked problem for humans to get under control, and why the climate emergency declaration movement could turn out to be a way to tackle that.

Again and again, in democracies around the world (think Australia, or USA), we are seeing voters elect governments who totally ignore the threats of global warming, and in reality have committed their countries to making the problem even worse. That’s because in our societies it is not (yet) illegal to lie about the climate science. So politicians do it all the time – and get away with winning elections on agendas about “jobs”, “economy”, “immigrants”, etc. They get away with it because the heating of the planet is a very s-l-o-wly progressing emergency, and most of the issues with the climate crisis are… that we haven’t even seen those issues rolled out yet. They will hit us decades later – at a time, when current politicians are retired or dead, and under circumstances when their manouvres to deliberately delay climate action will be long forgotten.

PLUS: A large part of the money that funds these election-winning government’s campaigns comes straight from the fossil fuel industry. 

So in many ways, democracy has been crippled – and some would say completely corrupted and become dysfunctional – by the fact that
a) we have no legislation protecting us against lies about the climate science, and
b) it is not illegal for fossil fuel companies to donate large sums to political parties, in which way they buy influence on climate policy making.
c) The climate crisis is a slowly moving emergency of future decades that voters of present time can still choose to ignore if they wish, or if they only listen to those politicians who choose to ignore it.

In the light of this democratic misery, enter the climate emergency declaration movement, currently with 600 councils and local governments, plus a few state and national governments on board, which can be seen as a slowly growing referendum on whether the people of this world believes we should do something serious about this emergency, or whether we should just continue to trust that the policies of our democratically elected leaders, next to do-nothing, are going to protect us sufficiently. Mind you, carbon emissions keep rising, globally. Every year. 

The climate emergency declarations currently form a map where in Britain roughly 50 per cent of the population lives in an area that have acknowledged the climate emergency and the need for emergency action. The figure is 30 per cent in Canada, and around 15 per cent in New Zealand, Switzerland, and Spain. 8 per cent in Australia. As these figures grow in the coming months and years, and we begin to go above the 50 per cent mark, the climate emergency declaration movement will suddenly play an entirely new role as a slow but powerful close-to-the-people, uncorrupted democratic decision making process, which can be said to suit the slowness of the escalating climate emergency much better than the (in reality frustratingly undemocractic) processes of our national parliaments, where money and vested interests speak louder than the responsibility to protect the population from a climate catastrophe.

We need to let the people speak – and this is what is happening thanks to these thousands of individuals who have stepped up and called for their locally elected leaders to declare a climate emergency.

Not sure if what I formulated here made sense to you, but my feeling is that this can become super important in the months and years to come.

→ More about the Climate Emergency Declaration movement

Comments on Facebook to this blogpost

“Two points:
1.Talking of the climate emergency in coming decades is unhelpful. The emergency is already with us e.g. California fire storms, heat waves and record temperatures, drought in the Fertile Crescent etc, 
2. The Extinction Resistance appears to have an answer to the democratic deficit in calling for a citizen involvement process on developing solutions, rather than having parliament in the centre of action.”
~ Ricky Ward