Against climate emergency

The recent Special Report from the IPCC on Global Warming of 1.5C (IPCC SR15) has (again) heightened the climate change rhetoric and generated another splurge of dramatic headlines: ‘We have 12 more years to limit climate change catastrophe’, ‘World leaders told they must act over climate change ‘cliff-edge’’, ‘The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, UN scientists say’.

One reaction in the UK to this Report, and to the preceding hot summer weather, has been the posting of a People’s Petition calling upon the British Government to call a ‘climate emergency’. The petition’s originator, Theo Simon, claims “The climate emergency predicted by our scientists”, it says, “is now here”; we must take “urgent steps to limit warming and reverse temperatures to 1980s levels”.

But talk of climate emergencies is dangerous talk.

It is reminiscent of James Lovelock’s call a few years ago in his book ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia’ for the suspension of democracy while, in effect, a war is fought against climate change. For Lovelock, surviving climate change “may require, as in war, the suspension of democratic government for the duration of the survival emergency” (p.95). Others before him have made similar claims.

For those who take the rhetoric of climate change discourse literally there is of course a certain logic to such desperate measures. By putting 1.5C as a climate target into political play the Paris Agreement has painted the world into a dangerous corner, a corner which this IPCC SR15 Report has squeezed even further. If one really believes the world will fall off a cliff-edge at 1.5C warming or that a ‘Hothouse Earth’ is triggered by 2C, then extreme and dangerous remedies will be unleashed.

The literalism of ‘the cliff-edge’, of ‘10 more years’ and of the ‘runaway hothouse’ breeds desperate measures. One such measure is solar climate engineering. Johan Rockström, a co-author of the Hothouse Earth study, recently said that the IPCC SR15 Report was likely to stimulate discussion of these extreme emergency measures: “I think this will raise solar radiation management to the highest political level. We currently have no framework for this,” he said. “I’m very scared of this technology, but we need to turn every stone now.”

These are dangerous thoughts from someone as influential as Rockström.

But as we argued a few years ago, declaring a climate emergency invokes a state of exception that carries many inherent risks: the suspension of normal governance, the use of coercive rhetoric, calls for ‘desperate measures’, shallow thinking and deliberation, and even militarization. To declare an emergency becomes an act of high moral and political significance, as it replaces the framework of ordinary politics with one of extraordinary politics.

In contrast, a little less rhetorical heat will allow for more cool-headed policy development. What is needed is clear-headed pragmatism, but without the Sword of Damocles hanging over these heads. Climate Pragmatism calls for accelerating technology innovation, including nuclear energy, for tightening local air quality standards, for sector-, regional- and local-level interventions to alter development trajectories and for major investments in improving female literacy. Not desperate measures called forth by the unstable politics of a state of emergency, but right and sensible things to do. And it is never too late to do the right thing.

Climate pragmatism also challenges the bunker mentality among climate advocates that is highly resistant to legitimate criticism or alternative ideas. As communication scholar Matt Nisbet has argued, “The result [of such a mentality] is a discourse culture that substantially reduces opportunities for developing effective policy and technology approaches on climate change that broker support among not only liberals, but also moderates and conservatives.”

Simon’s People’s Petition to the British Government seems unlikely to go very far. It has gained just under 8,000 signatures thus far, but seems unlikely to attract the 100,000 needed for a Parliamentary debate. But it is the underlying political populist instinct at work here that is concerning. Publicly calling for climate emergencies to be declared on the basis of the fear induced by cliff-edge deadline-ism is not good psychology. Neither is it based on good science and nor does it lead to effective politics.

And in any case, we’ve been here before … many times.

Mike Hulme, 17 October 2018