The strategy of getting more councils and governments to declare a climate emergency is changing the story. Why is that important?
“Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.”
~ Pete Seeger, American singer
“I hereby declare The Story as changed…” It’s not what mayors in hundreds of councils, municipalities and jurisdictions have been saying. They typically say something like, “I hereby declare our city in a climate emergency.”
But my point with this headline is that indirectly this is what their statements mean. An important consequence of what is going on at the moment, with more and more climate emergency declarations being issued at local level around the planet, almost on a daily basis, is that they are changing the story.
Changing our language changes our mindset. This again changes how we interact we each other, how we for instance could decide to go from competing against each other to suddenly start helping one another. How we decide to collaborate and put minor disagreements behind us. It influences on which choices we make, and how.
So when more than 550 councils now have decided to change how they will be talking about the climate emergency we are in, it has the potential to become a kick-starter for everything else we need to see happening with cutting our emissions, because this decision in itself sends a strong signal to everyone that the story has changed – both upwards, to governments at state and national levels, and outwards, to us, the residents in these jurisdictions, which comprise of over 65 million by now, and more than 40 per cent of the population in the United Kingdom, for instance.
The real challenge to humanity about climate change is that it requires we work together. Changes we make as individuals, as a council, even as a government, will have no effect on our climate if we do them alone.
Climate change requires system change – we have fundamentally change the ways we do things. A society-wide change at that scale is not going to happen as long as we treat climate change as a separate agenda point no 17 in our meetings, or write about it in a note on page 17 in the newspaper. In every decision we make, we have to ask ourselves: “How is this decision going to affect the climate?”
It has got to be front and centre, as if our lives depended on it. Because they actually do. “Our house is on fire,” as Greta Thunberg puts it.
Slowness and confusion
Climate change represents such a wicked challenge to humanity because of two things: the slowness in which the disaster rolls out, and the confusion which the fossil fuel industry has managed to spread about it.
Our governments are democratically elected, so what we have learned over the last three decades – since 1989, where, as this AP article illustrates, the global community fully understood the looming threat of climate change – the lesson learned is that governments simply aren’t able to address this problem at the sort of scale and speed which is required, unless a majority of the population gets it and and gets behind it. Wants it to happen.
Then again, we can’t really expect the population to get it as long as the media doesn’t get it. Consequently, we’ve been stuck now over decades in a climate-stalemate where everyone’s sitting around and waiting for someone else to do something.
A large section of the public has been lulled into thinking it can’t be all that bad and its more important to vote for “a strong economy”, even though the scientists’ dire predictions warn us that it is our very economy and everyone’s welfare which is at stake now.
We are not on track for a safe climate even if the Paris Agreement is implemented. Worse than that, our governments are not even on track for the Paris Agreement’s goals.
What the science tells is that we have to at least half our emissions within the next decade, and a couple of decades later, we have to be completely done with with polluting the air and have started the task of drawing down all that climate-damaging carbon we’ve carelessly put in the atmosphere over the last three decades.
Politicians won’t dare take the kind of action required to make this happen until the public demands it. It is a diabolical impasse. The only thing that can break that vicious cycle of inaction and procrastination is when our mindset begins to change. And that starts to happen when more and more people change how we talk about it, and how we prioritise it when we discuss our plans for making change.
Shifting our language from talking about slow change to emergency change means, for instance, this is not a topic you’d be raising in a discussion because you are some left-wing greenie, this is something relevant and important we all have to deal with and engage with, regardless of political preferences.
If you don’t understand why it is an emergency because you can’t see or feel the threat right outside the windows of your own house, then its your responsibility to educate yourself, so you understand the science of what’s driving us towards a catastrophe, and what we can do to avoid it.
This is our individual responsibility, and it is in particular the responsibility of the media, with public broadcasters even more so, as well as it is for community leaders, faith leaders, sports leaders, artists and cultural nobilities. Everyone must work together on this one and find consensus about the new mindset. Something humans are generally not all that good at, working together, but which we accomplish under extraordinary circumstances, such as during a war or in an emergency situation.
And when saying together, then that should in particular include the polluters – the wealthy 10 per cent part of society who are responsible for more than 50 per cent of emissions – and the industries responsible for the polluting fuels and products. This is a global conversation about the future of life on the planet, and it should aim to include whoever is willing to join from the otherwise soon dying dynasty of the fossil fuel industry.
The good thing about an emergency
If there is one positive thing to say about emergencies, then it is that are that they tend to bring us together as human beings. When we’re in an emergency, we collaborate instead of getting lost in the details. We step up and do extraordinary things.
When you are in an emergency, it is okay to be scared. But it is not okay to just sit passively and watch. We support each other in creating resilience and learning what needs to get done and taking the steps needed to get out of the mess.
When something appears to be too big, too impossible, we go into apathy – we sit back and wait for someone else to come up with a solution to the problem.
What the climate emergency campaign has achieved, assisted by well-formulated youth advocates such as Greta Thunberg, the climate strikers, FridaysForFuture and by the civil disobedience-movement Extinction Rebellion, is that this now has been transformed into resolutions, motions and declarations in councils and governments. This is not to be dismissed as being just a set of intentions on a piece of paper. This has already changed the story in our societies to one, where the newspapers and media outlets are now seen reporting that, “People have awakened.”
Moving away from the expression ‘climate change’ to replace it with ‘climate emergency’, as the British newspaper The Guardian recently, consciously, made a decision to do, is a huge step forward. So congratulations to the global climate emergency declaration campaign. Tick: #StoryChange. The process is happening.
The challenge in the coming months is now to convert this fresh energy into strong and ambitious climate policies and initiatives, which have cross-party support. That is not going to happen by itself.
But again, the point is that when you are in an emergency, you drop the politics, roll your sleeves up and get on with the job of rescuing what can still be rescued, and assist those who need help.
It is no longer about ‘being the difference’, as we we have been saying every time we end our radio show The Sustainable Hour. Now it is about being together, and collaborating. As journalist Gaia Vince formulated it in The Guardian recently:
→ Al Jazeera – 18 May 2019:
“Our best hope lies in cooperating as never before to radically reorganise our world.”
~ Gaia Vince, freelance British environmental journalist, broadcaster and non-fiction author
Has the media narrative changed around climate change?
“The climate change story is being told in ways and on platforms it has not been told before.”
Paul Gilding: Understanding how global systems change
“When you face a serious risk, you first of all deny it exists. And then when it gets more and more serious, and we all agree collectively, that maybe this is something we should look at, and when the evidence becomes pretty much overwhelming, we all agree: somebody else should do something about that – “It’s really important, they should do it faster!” – and then when it gets unbelievably risky, and we truly understand that this is existential in every sense, and we live in complete fear about the consequences, then we wait a bit longer… And then, we go: “Oh shit! This is really serious, we have to do something quite extraordinary now. And then we do.
This is what we do. We do it all the time. We do it in a financial crisis. We often do it with our credit cards. We do it when we drink too much. We do it when we are drug addicts. All sorts of people do this stuff all the time. It is a very human thing to do. When you face a life-threatening existential risk of some sort, you put it off, you put it off, you put it off… and then we do extraordinary things.
I say that not as a rhetorical ‘We can all have hope’ – I say it as an evidence-based conclusion on how human societies behave. World War II, I still think, is the best example of this. You could be doing this presentation on the science of the threat that Hitler posed – in 1935, in 1936, in 1937… and everyone would say, ‘Yep, now look, we should do something about it. But… it will be really expensive to fix it, and it will be really hard and it is going to be really complicated. Not everyone agrees yet. But we agree it is really important and we really should have a conference about it….’
The point is that this is what we do. And if you were Churchill in 1937, 1938… as he was saying, ‘Oh my god, are you people stupid! This is so clearly an existential risk that everything we stand for… we must arm.” – and everyone says ‘Take a chill-pill, smoke a cigar, it is all going to be fine, we’ll get to it.’
That is what we do. Consistently. And this is what we are doing in the case of the climate emergency. So, although frustrated as well, I am not surprised by the fact that we are here today. I’m not surprised by the fact that we are facing and existential risk to civilisation, which is exactly what we are facing – this threatens the future existence of the human species – and we are doing nothing about it. It’s kind of normal operating procedure for humans.
The reason I am not panicking about this is because we do this – and then we respond, and then we do extraordinary things. Let’s remember in World War II, that what the UK in particular did in the declaration of World War II, followed this pattern completely, and then achieved absolutely impossible things. (…)
Don’t ever forget how incredibly capable humans are in a crisis. We are just amazingly efficient when we put our minds to it, to achieve extraordinary things. So when we have to eliminate the fossil fuels out of the economy inside a decade, this seems unbelievable, that you could destroy Shell and Exxon and Mobil, and that this government would ever wake up – all those things seem impossible. They are eminently achievable objectives. This is not difficult. This is what we normally do.”Paul Gilding
The story is changing inside council chambers
Canada: Legislative Assembly of Ontario
The story is changing in politics
→ ThinkProgress – 3 May 2019:
Inslee rolls out sweeping climate plan, setting new standard for 2020 Democrats
“Inslee’s plan is likely to push the metrics offered by other candidates as climate change becomes a hot-button electoral issue.”
The story is changing on the roads
Polluting cars are being driven out
→ The Guardian – 3 May 2019:
Amsterdam to ban petrol and diesel cars and motorbikes by 2030
“Diesel cars older than 15 years will be barred next year as first part of anti-pollution drive:”
The story is changing for renewables
Renewable energy finally won the race against fossil fuels of becoming most cost effective – and cities around the world are switching to 100% clean and green electricity, including Adelaide, Melbourne and Australia’s capital Canberra.
The story is changing in the laboratories
Humanity keeps coming up with new great ideas and promising inventions
→ FastCompany – 1 May 2019:
These “biosolar panels” suck CO2 from the air to grow edible algae
“In London, scientists are testing the “BioSolar Leaf,” which uses carbon-hungry organisms to help clean the air better than trees can–all while providing an excellent source of protein.”
#StoryChange: Changing how we think
“Climate change isn’t a thing of the future, it’s happening now.
Dissonance is the disparity between doing what we know we should do and the reality of our every day actions. It’s the feeling of hypocrisy we get when we’re discussing the sea level rising over some burgers. This can feed into despair, doom or denial.
Nonetheless, these barriers are avoidable.
To successfully influence our behavioral approach to climate change we need to alter how it is communicated…”
→ Medium – 18 January 2019:
Why We Ignore Climate Change
And how to change the way we think
→ The Conversation – 12 April 2019
Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference
→ More about #StoryChange on this website