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Climate emergency: moving from rhetoric to reality

By Adam Corner on May 21, 2019

Has a social tipping point arrived?

On May 1st, 2019, the UK became the first country to declare a ‘climate emergency’, following similar decisions by a spate of local councils. Last week, The Guardian updated its style guide to introduce the terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” instead of ‘climate change’, with the newspaper’s editor giving the reasoning that these words more accurately ‘describe the situation we’re in’.

This sequence of emergency declarations are part of an astonishing few months for climate change politics and public engagement. With polls showing a record high in the level of concern about climate change, it’s clear that the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, and the BBC’s documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough have left their mark on public opinion. In one survey half of respondents (54%) agreed that climate change ‘threatens our extinction as a species’. In another, the majority of participants (63%) agreed with the statement ‘ we are facing a climate emergency’.

So has a social tipping point arrived? Will these declarations of climate emergencies usher in a new era of committed climate change citizenship, as well as joined-up, low-carbon thinking from politicians, and more sustainable business practices? To embed the meaning of a climate emergency into society, public dialogue is crucial – shifting the rhetoric of emergency into a lived reality.

Feeling the fear

The apparent success of the stark, uncompromising Extinction Rebellion messaging (extinction; apocalypse; emergency) reignited a long-standing debate between those who argue that scaring people leads to inaction, and those who argue that spinning climate change as an ‘opportunity’ obscures the nature of the issue: it might make people feel more motivated, but it misrepresents the problem.

The truth, though, has always been more complex, and more interesting. Research shows that generating negative emotions, such as fear, can resonate (the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations have certainly done this), but that without constructive, practical actions to enable people to do something with the fear they feel, the vital emotional energy can dissipate into a sense of helplessness.

Until recently, climate change hasn’t always felt like something to fear in the here and now. With climate impacts now really beginning to bite, there is no shortage of visceral human stories. Fear is tangible and real for many people, not something that needs to be constructed through a message. As our own Climate Visuals research bears out, authenticity in climate communication is key – and right now, fear is an authentic emotion for an increasing number of people.

The need for public dialogue

The idea that climate conversations are an essential part of the transition towards sustainability – that ‘talking climate’ is an important action in itself – is part of the Climate Outreach DNA. But recently, there’s been a huge surge of interest in a particular type of public dialogue, citizens’ assemblies, as a means of accelerating climate action.

As one of the core demands made by Extinction Rebellion, citizens’ assemblies have moved into focus, with politicians, campaigners and civil society groups racing to back the idea of a national conversation on climate change.

Where citizens’ assemblies and other large scale deliberations have taken place in the past (such as the recent Irish Citizens’ Assembly), the recommendations for climate and energy policies have been wide-ranging and progressive, outstripping the ambition of the actual policies in place.

So if a climate emergency is to be more than a rhetorical flourish, we need honest and upfront conversation about what life in a ‘climate emergency’ means. How can we live differently (and better), in a way that meets the need to decarbonise rapidly? The newly announced ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), of which Climate Outreach is a core partner, has this question as its starting point.

There is no doubt that climate change is an emergency, but how that powerful idea plays out is all to play for. Talking climate is crucial to translate the drama of declaring a climate emergency into a day-to-day reality.

5 responses to Climate emergency: moving from rhetoric to reality

  1. Holly Whitelaw says: says:

    Spreading help in regenerative agriculture in developing countries as well as money for tree planting and protection with money to forests vital…Please keep me advised on what I might do to help. I’m in West Cornwall. Experienced in renewables, retrofit housing improvement s and doing regenerative farming conference.

  2. Very interesting. Am working on a radio show (RheinwelleWiesbaden) here in Germany. Can you help me with a connection to a German speaking “representative”, of your or similar organisations? Thank you.

  3. Robert MacCarthy says: says:

    Thank you for a helpful article and I entirely agree that the progression to more practically-oriented public discussion about how we deal with the climate crisis is something to be greatly welcomed. But what about the other side? People in government and their supporters in the fossil fuel industries are not interested in those conversations. In a recent article for OpenDemocracy the respected analyst Paul Rogers describes an oil and gas industry conference in 2015, where
    “… a senior figure with absolutely impeccable connections with the Conservative-led government spoke at a session on environmental issues. Addressing those insiders, he was absolutely blunt. They were not to lose any sleep whatsoever about the government’s attitude to green issues – it was simply a matter of going through the motions for the sake of public appearances. The government did not believe in this climate-change stuff and was fully on the industry’s side…”
    These people will respond to the climate emergency with window-dressing, obfuscation and where necessary direct repression: they have no intention of entering into a meaningful dialogue with citizens. The only way forward is to remove them from office. We must use all the resources of our democratic system to ensure that happens.

  4. Yes agreed to a certain extent. I was in the two XR actions in London and they were successful because they were peaceful and sent a clear message. I have been a green activist for over 35 years and declaring a Climate Emergency was the biggest success of all my campaigning. I think the Citizens Asxsembly idea is very valid was of advising government such as the Climate Change Committee. Thanks for all the work you do and it gives me a sense of inspiration that we have a new institution focussed on these issues.. well done. Currently writing a second book on Climate Change and Spiritual values and you can tell George your organisation features prominently as a dynamic NGO.
    Chris Philpott (author of Green Spirituality-one answer to global environmental problems and world poverty-Authorhouse 2011))

  5. Mike Prior says: says:

    XR’s use of People’s Assemblies before and during the international rebellion was an effective way to energise large numbers of albeit like-minded people to agree ‘constructive, practical actions …and do something with the fear they feel,’ We don’t necessarily need to wait for a more costly deliberative democratic forum to be installed before engaging in this way. Via good organisation and execution with ground rules, climate crisis related People’s Assemblies can be effective but also inspirational, and uplifting

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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