The Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement are both prompting governments in the UK to move quickly to achieve a net-zero emission target. And in Canada? Hmm…
Scotland, Wales and many councils have adopted the language of climate urgency, now Labour is pushing the national government to follow suit
Sunrise over the Extinction Rebellion activist camp at Oxford Circus, London (Pic: Flickr/Andrew Tijou)
After weeks of mass demonstration, Extinction Rebellion’s demand that the government “tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency” has moved from the streets of London to the corridors of power.
The Labour Party is now pressing the Conservative government to declare a national climate emergency in a show of how far Extinction Rebellion’s asks have infiltrated mainstream politics.
And in the last week, both the Scottish and Welsh governments have declared climate emergencies, following the lead of dozens of councils across the country, hoping to trigger “a wave of action” commensurate with a crisis.
On the streets, the sense of urgency to act on climate change remains strong. A recent poll carried out by Opinium Research for Greenpeace found that 63% of respondents agreed that “we are facing a climate emergency.”
This language, inspired by activist Greta Thunberg, the school climate strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement, may indicate a shift in public awareness, suggests Robin Webster, a senior engagement strategist at Climate Outreach, a charity specialising in climate communication.
Fear for the future and the sentiment of crisis have been effective in motivating thousands across the UK to take part in civil disobedience actions. For Webster, Thunberg’s analogy of the planet as a “house on fire”, which if left to burn will turn to ash, has “started to resonate as authentic with some people by pushing the issue into the present”.
Larch Maxey, a climate campaigner from Devon who was inspired by the Extinction Rebellion protests to stand as a Climate and Ecological Emergency Independents candidate at the upcoming European election, admitted that the messaging may appear “counterintuitive” and breaks a tradition in the climate movement to focus on the positive.
“There is an idea that if you start scaring people they will put their heads in the sand. But concerns are shifting. A climate emergency is an honest philosophy and allows people to start making informed decisions about what is needed to tackle this emergency,” he said.
“This is not about what is convenient but what is necessary.”
However, Webster argued that while Extinction Rebellion’s alarming imagery and messaging spoke powerfully to part of society, different communities may need to be addressed with a more nuanced message of fear and hope in order to engage.
“Declaring a climate emergency without taking action is like saying the house is burning down, but not putting out the fire,” he said.
For Webster, of Climate Outreach, people are able to cope with the emergency declaration “if it is paired with a sense of hope and action is available for people to express their negative emotions”.
At a political level, Webster argued it would be “irresponsible” for politicians to make this strong statement and fail to act, which she said could be “really disempowering for people who can be overwhelmed with negativity without the potency of action”.
While there is a general drive for science to inform the UK’s decarbonisation policy, the debate about how far, how fast, remains.
Leaks of the Committee on Climate Change’s latest official advice to the government suggest that it will recommend a new climate target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions without using international offsets mechanisms by 2050, with Scotland able to target net-zero by 2045.
The term “net-zero” is shorthand for the need to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to zero. This can be through using negative emissions technologies that not only capture emissions but can also offset more than the amount emitted through natural climate solutions such as tree planting. MORE