Why declare an emergency?

SECA’s initial focus when it was set up in February 2019 was to lobby councils in the South East of England to declare a climate emergency.  Here’s the rationale for taking this step.

What’s the problem?

The recent IPCC report could not have been clearer – we need to act

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in October 2018, could not have been clearer. It states that humanity has just 12 years for “ambitious action from national and subnational authorities, civil society, the private sector… and local communities” to deliver the “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities” needed to turn the situation around, so we can prevent tipping points where we no longer have the ability to avoid extreme weather events.

We have only a few years to act on a massive scale to avert irreversible climate change, that will profoundly affect our lives. Yet somehow, while some important steps have been taken, this degree of urgency is not yet reflected in our individual actions and that of our local and national governments.

Why the lack of urgency? It may be partly because nobody in authority is saying loud and clear “This is an emergency!” For many, there is a general feeling of business as usual.

‘People expect an emergency announcement when there is a life threatening situation and will hesitate to take action themselves if nobody else seems to be taking the threat seriously’.

 ‘A Climate Emergency Declaration issued by a body in authority, such as a government or local authority, can be a powerful catalyst for community wide action if paired with a clear action plan’.

‘Our political system seems intractable, the culture in the thrall of denial, and the scale of the crisis is staggering. Widespread feelings of helplessness also represent the failure of leadership from official climate movement leaders and politicians to offer an honest assessment of the crisis, advocate for solutions that actually stand a chance of working, and invite individuals to take part in that solution’.

These quotes are from the Climate Emergency UK website, which has a useful analysis of the psychology of how declaring an emergency can spur help action.

How the Climate Emergency movement began

The Climate Emergency movement started in Australia, with the City of Darebin, a suburb of Melbourne, leading the way. They declared a climate emergency in August 2017 and developed a climate emergency plan to galvanise action.

“Council recognises that we are in a state of climate emergency. Unless we restore a safe climate at emergency speed, there will be dramatic and negative impacts on our community and around the world.” Excerpt from Darebin City Council’s Climate Emergency Plan

The movement has been gathering pace ever since, and has really taken off in the UK after Bristol declared in November 2018.  By December 2019, over 260 councils across the country have declared (65% of the total number of primary and secondary councils), including around 40 in the South East. The ClimateEmergency.uk website provides an up to date picture of what’s happening, plus some excellent resources.

Why local councils matter

Action on climate change is needed at every level if we are to get on top of the climate crisis – from individual actions and changes in business practices to national policy and global agreements. Local councils – Parishes, Districts, Cities and Boroughs – all have a key role to play in this. Their policies and actions have a big effect on many aspects of the local economy and environment, not least in:

  • Local transport
  • Housing policy
  • Waste management
  • Energy generation and use
  • Public information
  • Parks and landscape management

Councils across the country are working together to up their game on climate change

As a report from The Town and Country Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute puts it:

“While we need to work nationally and internationally to secure progress on addressing climate change, we must also galvanise local action. Local and combined authorities are at the cutting edge of the climate change challenge because they have responsibility for decisions that are vital to our collective future. Many of the adverse impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat, flooding or water scarcity, will result in costs to businesses and householders, and solutions to the problems they pose need to be developed locally. Adaptation to the risks presented by climate change is key to future-proofing our existing communities and making sure that new developments maintain and enhance the health and wellbeing of local communities, as well as their competitiveness.” From Planning for Climate Change: a guide for local authorities’ (2018)

Most councils in the South East have already taken steps to address climate change and promote sustainable development. Some have been leading the way on this. But it is fair to say that, for many, climate change has gone off the boil. The priority given to it a few years ago has not been kept up and momentum has been lost. Whatever the local situation, the point is there is a lot more to be done. By declaring a climate emergency, local councils can:

  • Underline the urgency of the climate crisis
  • Refocus their attention so climate is treated as an overriding priority, not a side issue
  • Make a public pledge to take action, and be held accountable to that
  • Demonstrate leadership and provide an example to others
  • Use their unique position to raise public awareness and shift the debate

This is why the South East Climate Alliance has chosen to focus on local councils as our top priority.  We hope, through concerted action, to create a tipping point so decisive climate action becomes the norm, not the honourable exception.

Which councils have declared an emergency so far?

According to the Climate Emergency UK website, 310 councils in the UK have so far taken the step to declare a climate emergency.  Councils of all political persuasions have got on board with this idea, and in many cases the motion to declare an emergency has been passed unanimously, demonstrating the degree of cross-party agreement on the issue.

Here in the South East, every one of the primary and secondary councils in the region have now either declared a climate emergency, or passed a motion in direct response to the climate emergency. An increasing number of parish councils are also following suit.  Here’s a progress checklist showing which councils have declared a climate emergency (in green), or passed a climate motion or resolution (in yellow).  Significantly, there are no longer any councils marked red where there is no action we know of.

Progress Summary Nov 2020

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