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.