The mantra of ‘Climate Emergency!’ has been a central feature of the exhilarating and deeply necessary climate-movement that has swept the world since 2018. In this essay, we ask uncomfortable questions: What if climate is not an emergency, but something much more difficult? Worse: What if the drive towards declaration of emergency is just another form of immunity to deep change, in disguise? Then, the only significant practical value of declarations of emergencies by institutions would be that the language can be mirrored back to them by activists trying to hold them to account for the next step. The question we are asking is whether that advantage outweighs the significant downside that we explore below.
Our contention is that the emergency frame is actually too optimistic. It’s a form of denial about the width, depth, and tragic nature of the crisis. We connect this briefly with the contemporary fetish for net zero carbon declarations. Both, ultimately, for all their attractions and even successes, are forms of simplistic wishful thinking.
‘Emergency’, or what?
Consider this reasonable definition of emergency as either “an unforeseen combination of circumstances […] that calls for immediate action”, or “an urgent need for assistance or relief”. We have seen the climate crisis coming for half a century, so the first definition does not apply. This leaves us with the second, of which urgency is the central and indispensable aspect. Urgency is partly an objective notion, referring to what a situation demands. But it is also, and ineradicably, partly a subjective notion, something we feel. It requires us to feel the need for action so strongly that we cannot resist it. Therefore, if there is no genuine sense of urgency, then it is senseless to talk of emergency.
It is time to admit that we, collectively, show no behaviour testifying to a sense of irresistible urgency so characteristic of real emergencies, that leave little or no room for second thoughts or prevarication. Collectively, we do not feel that the climate and ecological crisis is an emergency situation. For this is partly about what we feel; and it calls into question the widely held view that there is an action-intention gap at the heart of our reluctance to act. If we do not feel the urgency, it is not credible even to state there is an intention for immediate and radical action. The climate crisis is thus not just a matter of courage – that we know deep down what to do but are unable to put this into action. Rather, we have not grasped the nature and depth of the “problem”.
There are, as we are fully aware, growing numbers who have been at least seeking to make the emergency real to us all, and we, too, have been part of their work: Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise movement, and the global school climate strikes provide testament enough to this. These millions of inspiring children, citizens, and activists have struck a chord: public opinion has changed fairly dramatically in the last few years, now reliably indicating that the broad mass of the population recognises at some level that something is deeply amiss. Many are even happy to call it an “emergency”, at least in answering questions put to them by a pollster. This is a remarkable achievement. But our worry here is that the achievement is not as deep as most activists or scientists desperately hope it to be. Not only is it the case that climate emergency declarations achieve very little in terms of substantive change that the atmosphere will notice, but we also argue that – in a twisted way – they make us less prone to take the necessary action. Let us explain further.
What we are faced with is a subtle form of denial, one where we tend to cling on to the false hope that things will turn out to be fine, that we will be saved in some way or other. A perhaps better term we propose to use is ‘disavowal’, the systematic burying of painful insights and the avoidance of any attempt to grasp the full scale of the tragic and unbelievable reality.
Climate-emergency-talk that spins in the void risks direct complicity with and entrenchment of such disavowal. As a consequence, there is a dissonance between the increasingly widespread proclaimed emergency-awareness and the ongoing actual lived priorities of individuals, communities, political parties, governments, societies. The real emergency is precisely that collectively we don’t treat this situation as remotely anything like an emergency. In that sense, the real, paradoxical emergency is that we feel no emergency. Call this ‘the meta-emergency’.
Here is a mini case-study of the concern that motivates our piece. A colleague drew this to our attention:“The city of x declared a climate emergency last year, as many municipalities have. But last fall the city council agreed to also declare a housing emergency, because the city is woefully short on affordable housing; the city in question is a classic case of a scenic zoom town with a university, good outdoor recreational access, and now in the wake of the pandemic a giant upsurge in immigrants from other cities who are able to relocate in large part because they can work remotely.
“Only one city council member objected to the declaration of the housing emergency, on the basis that it cheapened the previous declaration of the climate emergency. So now they are facing both emergencies at the same time. Guess which emergency the city council now spends most of its time discussing? Housing, of course, since it is a matter for now, whereas climate change even in this well-educated community is still seen primarily as a matter for the future. What demarcates the city’s progressiveness is that the target date for municipal net zero emissions is 2030 rather than 2050. But this emergency still takes a back seat to more immediate concerns about housing, economic development, and so on.”
Unless and until the climate crisis becomes an issue about now, we will get nowhere.
Endless fatuous talk of “keeping 1.5 alive”, and of dates like 2030 and 2050, keep us locked in complacent outsourcing of the issue to our “leaders”, in fantasies of an imagined future salvation. It keeps us from actually confronting the situation we are in – and really acting.
And, as we shall now explore, this pickle just cannot be fixed by doubling down on emergency. For there is a real sense in which it cannot be ‘fixed’ at all. The idea of this being a fixable ‘problem’ is itself a key obstacle to us facing up together to the truth of our condition in this age of climate damage and ecological breakdown. It is not that we ought to try harder to grasp this weird new kind of emergency; it is that the very effort to frame what we are in as an emergency misfires.
The age of stability is over
Does the idea that we have entered the ‘Anthropocene’ help us face our reality? While the debate about whether or not we are in the ‘Anthropocene’ exactly is interesting but secondary. What really matters is that we are no longer in the Holocene. Even in the unlikely event that we manage as a global civilisation to get our act together and act with true grit and determination to rein in the cascading damage that has been unleashed, that damage will go on reverberating down the decades and centuries. The age of stability is over. Climate indicators and greenhouse gases are changing at an unprecedented speed. Ice sheets have been irrevocably destabilized, condemning large swathes of the most fertile agricultural lands to inundation by the sea. Vast numbers of species have been lost forever in what is in evolutionary terms the blink of an eye; vast numbers more will follow, many of which we are not even yet aware of. The coziness of the Holocene, its convenience for agriculture and city-building, is a thing of the past.
The “emergency” frame is suitable for fierce, short-lived matters. In an emergency, it’s all hands on deck to fix it. But this pickle that we are in is not the kind of thing one fixes. If we had declared a climate and ecological emergency 40 years ago and acted accordingly, there is a chance that the ensuing emergency mode in which this would have placed humanity would have made sense and unprecedented disasters could have been avoided. But for that it is too late. Now, staying in emergency mode either means that we don’t really mean it – or that there will inevitably be burn-out because of the impossible, vast, quasi-permanent, nature of the task.
What we can do, though, is to shift permanently into a mode of transformative adaptation. A mode of coping with the world that years of inaction have created, of coping open-mindedly while facing an intrinsically unknown future, and of seeking not to add to the damage done.
So our fundamental point is this: let’s admit that the emergency frame isn’t capturing all this. What is emerging is worse than that. It is too late for this to be an emergency.
There is, then, a great letting go to be done here, a great relinquishment. It is now time to prepare to fail. And it is time to prepare to succeed, to transform. For if the kind of thing that we (and Marc Lopatin) are saying lands, then it is entirely possible that a much larger movement, a much larger wave of action even than the youth climate strikes, could arise. If it really lands with many millions that it’s too late for us to picture what we are living in an emergency, that our shared condition is moreserious than that, then expect a deeper round of eco-grief and climate-anxiety, andthe action that will emerge from that. Expect a far greater upsurging of love and of rage even than was natal to and expressed via Extinction Rebellion. Expect, after confusion and denial and anomie, the kind of letting go, and painful acceptance, that we have called for. Expect some congruence between the state our planet is in and our own shared state, at last.
What does ‘success’ now look like? Not like fixing a problem, but like some shared maturity in action. Crucially, success now looks like rising up – whether or not that rising up succeeds in preventing societal collapse. Success looks like a multi-faceted, virtue-ethics-based, spiritually-grounded endeavour to prevent further harm and to cope with the damage already unleashed. An emotionally calibrated, good-faith upsurge of transformative adaptation. It looks like authentically facing up to climate reality at last.
Crucially, this will involve the painful and liberating acceptance that we cannot return to where we came from; that the ‘good’, ‘normal’ days are over (for us the privileged, in the global North, especially the rich). Taking this in leads to a realisation of how much we have lived the lives we’ve lived only because we failed to imagine things could ever be different. Opening up to the possibility of us actually daring to imagineboldly will require first accepting that we had been lost, inebriated by over-consumption, having sold ourselves to an inhumane capitalist system on autopilot. The system that brought us to this pass.
All this is actually, of course, among other things, a hugely exciting prospect. It is, we take it, roughly what Emerge and Thrutopia and more aim at. It will not be achieved. (We mean: the future is going to be messy.) But: it is completely worth aiming at.
‘Emergency’ disavowal and ‘net zero’ denial
It has been argued that the net zero declarations sweeping the world have been designed not to bring on change, but to save the status quo. Hiding behind distant goals, they say nothing about what we emit between now and their proclaimed distant deadlines. Thus, at first sight, they seem to be opposite to emergency declarations, which at least have the intention to make the problem one of here and now.
But the point we have been making in this essay is that the two share something dangerous in common. They are both designed to stop us from understanding that we have entered a new, basically permanent, condition of difficult change, of tragedy, even. The emergency frame, just as much as the net zero frame, subtly delivers the comfort that we can return to the Holocene, that one day the long climate struggle will be over and maybe we will have won.
That is the illusion that above all has to be relinquished.
What we aim to do by raising this matter into public consciousness is to provoke felt-response and reflection and discussion about it, and thus, perhaps together, to find a path beyond the well-meaning but structurally-parallel gesture of ”emergency”.
What lies beyond ‘emergency’?
Perspectiva has already been playing an important role in the wider discussion to which the present essay contributes. For what we have been doing in this piece is raising awkward questions, which many want to avoid, about the ‘meta-crisis’ .
What we are entering is a novel, more or less permanent condition. We are launched on a path literally into terra incognita. The new normal is climate instability, it is change, including chaos. What has changed is not ‘merely’ the climate: what has changed is whether we can still hope to be living in a world with a basic taken-for-granted stability. And maybe this is the reason why so many in power and privilege, politicians, journalists, scientists, even activists, and most of us in the affluent world, shy away from looking at what lies beyond the ‘emergency’. Because living without some basic notion of predictability of the future has been the daily life of the majority of this planet for a long time now.
This is where the circle closes: the climate and ecological crisis has been created by the unfettered desires of us the privileged to consume and enrich ourselves, and it is us who are now facing a fundamental crisis of faith that shatters the very foundation of our way of being. What we in the rich world need to do is let go of no more or less than our privilege. This crisis, then, is not about definitions of ‘emergency’ or ‘urgency’, ‘denial’ or ‘disavowal’. It is what Wittgenstein was talking about when he said that the real issue is not problems of the intellect but of the will. And it is an ethical imperative – to undo centuries of intellectual hegemony by admitting that we have, ultimately, failed. Only in such an admission of failure lies the chance of the new kind of success we referred to above. And, perhaps more important still: the chance of integrity.