Climate emergencies - do they help?
- In the wake of recent climate disasters, over 2,000 local governments and 20 national parliaments worldwide have declared climate emergencies, and it is expected that more and more will follow
- New research found that in declaring climate emergencies, governments could actually be alienating people from taking action on climate change, as they become desensitised to the issue and may begin to feel fearful and guilty, instead of empowered to change things
- Climate emergencies don’t only have negative effects though - researchers found that they can help to focus public attention on the issue, and build support for action, such as in the case of Greta Thunberg’s leadership in the school strikes
Various governments all over the world have declared climate emergencies in recent years, but do they help, or can they also have drawbacks?
This was the question posed by a global team of researchers, who sought to investigate the pros and cons of declaring climate emergencies.
In the wake of recent climate disasters, such as the wildfires that have ravaged Australia, Hurricane Ida in America, and severe flooding across Europe, more and more governments have declared climate emergencies. Over 2,000 local governments and 20 national parliaments worldwide have decided upon the measure, and it is expected that more will follow.
However, Dr Linda Westman, from the Sheffield Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield, alongside researchers from the universities of Utrecht, Sussex, Oslo, and the Australian National University, as well as the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, found that in declaring climate emergencies, governments could actually be alienating people from taking action on climate change, as they become desensitised to the issue and may begin to feel fearful and guilty, instead of empowered to change things.
Furthermore, there are fears that emergency frames could be used by governments to curtail people’s freedoms and clamp down on political debates, but so far this has not been seen.
By reviewing previous studies into the effects of declaring states of emergency, the researchers were able to look at the impacts of emergency frames around the world, and what they mean for individual societies.
It wasn’t only negative outcomes that were found though - the researchers discovered that emergency frames can help to focus public attention on an issue and build support for action. For example, the Fridays for Future movement and global trend of school strikes, inspired by Greta Thunberg, has been an influential factor contributing to the adoption of climate emergency declarations by local authorities.
On top of this, climate emergencies can help to shake up sluggish political systems and lead to action in terms of reimagining a greener future. They can also lead to people getting involved in politics where they might not necessarily have before.
It is hoped that the findings, published in Nature Sustainability, will help to inform governments on the pros and cons of declaring such emergencies, with the researchers calling for climate emergencies to be just “one tool in the kit” alongside other measures that support meaningful action to help tackle climate change.
Dr Linda Westman, from the Sheffield Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield, said: “Historically, governments have sometimes used states of emergency as tools of oppression and even violence. There is a concern that these could be used to legitimize different forms of state control. However, we have found no evidence of this in relation to climate emergencies so far.
“The effects of emergency frames are context-dependent - their impact depends on who is deploying them and the political system in which they are introduced.
“Climate emergencies may play an important role in climate politics, but on their own they do not deliver transformative change. There are no easy fixes to climate change."
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